10 years ago, Eminem released Recovery, a musical return to form for the once-masterful chief mischief maker of hip-hop. In 2010, Em was in an odd place with both critics and fans. His previous albums, Encore and Relapse, had received criticism for leaning too heavily into his comedic personas and he was “still finding his feet” after getting sober as he told Rolling Stone in 2013. Recovery saw him find that balance and while it’s far from his best album — that honor still goes to The Eminem Show — it was a major turning point in Eminem’s career, bridging the gap between his drugged-out Slim Shady era and the hyper-focused technician he was to become.
There’s one major difference between this album and those both before and after it. Unlike his more recent output, he still sounds like he’s having fun, while still taking his job seriously enough that it doesn’t feel like he was making an endless, recurring fart joke. By finding the balance between those warring impulses, Eminem made an album that sounds like he was making music, not trying to make a point. For sure, he targets critics and celebrities, but he doesn’t fixate on them — Recovery is about Eminem. Some songs have aged better than others, but this is the first flash of the “mature” Em that the world has had a decade to become accustomed to.
That balance between earnest and playful is most evident in the album’s anthemic singles. “Not Afraid” is defiant without indulging Eminem’s grudges, while “Love The Way You Lie” features some of his most emotive language. Collaborations with Rihanna on “Love The Way You Lie” and Pink on “Won’t Back Down” were Em’s first and most successful experiments with bringing a feminine touch to his song construction. While they may have been as focus-grouped and algorithmically calculated as more recent attempts like the lackluster “Walk On Water” with Beyonce and the head-scratching “Nowhere Fast” with Kehlani from Revival, the chemistry he has with his first female collaborators made the plug-and-play tracks sound organic.
The proof is in the pudding; “Love The Way You Lie” became Eminem’s best-selling single ever. It showed that he could update his sound while remaining thematically true to his core content — the soul-baring, confessional raps that people related too, not the Triumph The Comic Insult Dog jokes that only appealed to a certain brand of frat humor aficionados. However, Em also showed that he was unafraid to get busy, busting out his old battle-rapper persona on songs like “On Fire,” then trading bars with the rapper who would become one of hip-hop’s most influential figures in the coming decade, Lil Wayne, on “No Love.”
There’s even a precursor to Music To Be Murdered By‘s “Those Kinda Nights” in “WTP,” on which Em coins his storytelling club-rap conceit and executes it much better than he would a decade later. Recovery‘s efficacy in comparison with latter-day efforts comes from the comfort he displays on this track, on which he sounds less invested in whether anyone thinks he’s a good rapper. He’s just rapping. In fact, he just raps on the rest of the album as well, poking just enough fun at himself throughout — admitting to the overuse of accents on his previous albums — that the focus remains on the world-class wordplay, not trying to mystify listeners into missing the genericness of his lightspeed fast flow.
While, yes, many of the issues that plague his newer albums crop up here as well, Recovery was still early enough in his career that those nitpicks hadn’t yet become nagging complaints. Some of the beat choices are a bit anachronistic and jarring — particularly “Cinderella Man” and the album closer, “Untitled” — and Em’s frequent and flagrant use of homophobic slurs firmly freezes Recovery as a product of pre-Twitter media society. In today’s world of crowd-sourced accountability, wherein Em deletes the “F-word” from a rap about Tyler The Creator and still gets dragged online, many of Recovery‘s tracks would see the chopping block or the editing room before the album saw store shelves.
But there’s a lot to admire about Eminem’s first middle-aged effort. He definitely shows his age, but he’s still in fighting shape. He hadn’t yet evolved into the crotchety commentator, grousing about how things were better “back in my day.” The stultified affect of albums like Kamikaze and Music To Be Murdered By hadn’t settled in and he was still close enough to the trauma of his past that him rapping about it felt therapeutic rather than wearying. It’d be a trap to hope that Eminem would go back to the version of himself he was on Recovery — a trap he himself couldn’t seem to avoid on his more recent offerings — but it’d be nice to hear him recover some sparks of the sense of fun and maturity he displays on it.