It’s been eight years since Marshall Mathers released The Eminem Show, the best-selling album of 2002.
It was followed later that year by the semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile, which earned Em an Oscar.
And of course, earlier this year, Eminem hit a career milestone when I wrote about him on Copyblogger.
He stood at the edge of something truly amazing.
And then the other shoe dropped.
His next album Encore was lazy, kicked off by an embarrassing single and followed up with songs that merely echoed what he’d accomplished with The Eminem Show. Even the frivolous songs were missing the deviant humor present in previous singles. Not one song had the gnarled roots of anger or brazen honesty that drenched the best of Em’s first three albums.
When Relapse finally dropped last year after a half-decade disappearing act, fans were famished.
Eminem was pushing 40. He’d lost his closest friend and confidant to a couple of bullets. Surely, now he would have a lot more to say than adolescent one-liners aimed at the women who made him angry.
This was the album everyone was waiting for
But they were let down once again.
Relapse was good, but not great. His skills were there, but Em had lost his relevance. Even fans who defended the album did so in a wavering voice. Maybe he was just done. Maybe this was it.
Then, just under a year after the release of Relapse, he dropped the first single to a new album, “I’m Not Afraid.”
And to the fans, I’ll never let you down again, I’m back
I promise to never go back on that promise, in fact
Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was “ehhh.”
And there it was. The honesty was back and so was Eminem.
You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop or dirty rotten rhymers to appreciate what Eminem accomplished.
He had been phoning it in and he knew it. But rather than skating along on just okay, he went back to the lab and delivered a sonic apology.
If you’ve been phoning it in, it’s okay
You’re a human being, not a machine. You hit a slow spell. You lost your unique voice.
But understand that it’s not a life sentence. Even if your audience is losing interest, it’s never too late to deliver your best and become more relevant than ever.
Here are some things I learned about staying relevant from Eminem’s Recovery:
Recovery is a refreshing return to form, mostly because of its stark honesty and humility. Em fesses to letting fans down with his previous releases, but the disclosures run deeper, from suicide to self-loathing.
Be honest with your audience, and you might find them especially forgiving. Though Em wears iron armor of bravado, he has no difficulty letting genuine fragility bleed through the verses. This heart-on-his-sleeve honesty connects him to his audience in a way that can’t be manufactured.
If you’ve screwed up in the past, own up to it. You’ll be surprised how willing your audience is to embrace honesty.
Evolve or die
Heavy repetition and little innovation lead directly to diminishing returns.
Whether you’re an artist, entrepreneur, or both, it’s important to groom your game and keep growing creatively. Em dropped quite a few of his fallback themes from Recovery, including lyrical tirades aimed at his mother and estranged wife, and the skits that had always showed his boisterous, playful side.
Cutting those elements was a risk. They were tried and true, and fans had always liked them. But by doing so, Em gave himself room to create something new and different to embrace.
If you aren’t growing, you’re dying, no matter how good you are at what you do. Em confronted this truth and recorded an album crackling with newfound creativity.
Bring your A-game
Eminem brings all his verbal virtuosity to Recovery, weaving in and out of wordplay, as though a single misstep or broken syllable would crush his credibility.
At the end of “No Love,” Em declares he’s going to spit the “greatest verse of all time,” and though that particular verse may not be it, it is an impressive spitting of 300 words delivered in perfect pentameter, all in under a minute.
Always deliver your best, and remember that whether your audience is spending time or money on the products you create, you owe them the best in the exchange.
Be the best You, not the You it’s easiest to be.
Embrace your fears
Em made fear of irrelevancy his muse, and the result is a harder-driving album than one would expect after a decade of success.
The best aspect of Recovery is it’s the first time Em blends the lessons of his career into a cocktail of his psyche. More than ever before, he accepts responsibility for his life and actions, rather than laying blame on a negligent mom or a savage ghetto.
Never before has Eminem made himself so vulnerable. Which, ironically, made him stronger. Recovery is the resurrection that proves any artist can overcome fear and reclaim their relevance.
How do you stay relevant? What ugly truths have you faced and how have you turned them around to pull the best from your work?