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NEW YORK (Billboard) - "Make some noise for a gentleman who's come a long way." It's a muggy, breeze-less June night in New York, and some 200 fans have pressed into Bowery Ballroom under the pretext of watching local rappers with questionable names like Kosha Dillz and Quest McCody berate one another with questionable lines like "You sound like a character from 'The Legend of Zelda.'"
Really, though, everyone is here for Eminem.
The rap superstar was rumored to be headlining this freestyle battle event, Red Bull EmSee: The Road to 8 Mile, named after his own Detroit origins and the Academy Award-nominated 2002 movie that chronicled them. Now, the night's host has finally confirmed that Marshall Mathers will take the stage.
From the moment he does -- with "Despicable," a freestyle that was leaked in April to hype his new album, "Recovery" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope) -- Eminem looks furious. Neck pulsing, eyes alight, he plows through bars with the intensity of someone who has spent the past five years fighting just to stay alive, which, in fact, he has, in large part as the result of a near-fatal addiction to prescription medications including Vicodin, Valium, Ambien and methadone.
"Better not let up, better not let them breathe," he spits. "Last shot, give it all you got."
His set ends not 10 minutes later, after he performs two tracks from "Recovery": "On Fire" and the explosive "Won't Back Down," featuring pop outlier Pink on the chorus. Only when he says goodbye does Eminem hint at the calmer artist behind the lethal-as-ever rhymes.
"I do realize, man, for real, that if it were not for you guys I would not be standing up here right f---ing now," he tells the crowd. "Honest to God, man -- thank you to each and every one of you." As he leaves, fans scream and chant "Encore, encore!" to no avail.
Eminem has good reason to feel grateful: June 21 marked the release of "Recovery," his second studio album in as many years after a long and turbulent hiatus. The first one, "Relapse," was released last May and followed 2005's "Encore," which sold 5.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Perhaps more so for Eminem than any other artist, "underwhelming" is a relative term when it comes to sales. At 2 million copies, "Relapse" has significantly lower sales than his previous sets but was the top-selling rap album of 2009, affirming the continued loyalty of his fans and his music's ability to withstand leaks. All told, Eminem has sold 35.7 million albums in the United States in slightly more than 11 years and was the best-selling artist of the last decade.
In its first week of release, "Recovery" is projected to add around 600,000 copies to his grand total.
"I don't think I've actually stopped to think about it," Eminem says by phone from his home in Detroit, while on a brief break between trips to promote "Recovery." "I never thought that my life would amount to this. But to be able to sit back and digest it is so strange to me, because I still feel so regular. I don't understand what people think the big deal is about me. It's a very strange relationship that I have with fame."
What Eminem has spent a great deal of time thinking about, however, is artistic merit. He continues to speak openly about what he believes is the mixed quality of his last two albums. "I was pretty much in full-blown addiction while I was creating ("Encore")," he says, "and as far as 'Relapse,' when I first got sober I got really happy because I was not a prisoner of addiction anymore, so life was brand-new to me. I was like, 'S--t, man, trees are beautiful again. What a nice day it is.' I don't think I was paying attention to what the average listener might like or not like."
During the four years between "Encore" and "Relapse," Eminem grappled with events that would turn anyone's life upside down: the death of best friend and fellow Detroit rapper DeShaun "Proof" Holton in 2004; a second divorce from his high school sweetheart, Kimberly Mathers, in 2006; and a deepening dependency on pills. When he says, "Technically, I'm not even supposed to be here right now," on the introduction to "Recovery" cut "Cinderella Man," he's not joking.
"Anybody who's known someone fighting this kind of addiction knows it can be extremely challenging," says Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's longtime manager. "During that period I lost a friend, and I certainly didn't have as much of a business partner. All that's back now, though, and it's incredible."
Like "Relapse" before it, "Recovery" could be considered a personal triumph simply for existing. But the album succeeds at more than that. Eminem has written his most complete rhymes in years. Slim Shady, the offensive alter ego that made him such a cultural hot button in the early aughts, is largely absent on "Recovery," and the severance feels necessary for an MC who will turn 38 in October.
For the first time, too, Eminem collaborated with producers outside of his tight-knit circle (Dr. Dre, Mike Elizondo, Mark Batson), employing Just Blaze, Boi-1da, Jim Jonsin and others. The new sound reinforces Eminem's lyrical dominance and presents a clearer vision of his potential as a mature artist.
"It's everything that you would want to hear from him at this point in his career," says DJ Khalil, who helped craft four tracks on "Recovery." "He's the best rapper, period, and he has a lot to say right now."
"As ("Relapse") was coming along, I heard the song structures and production get broader and better," Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine says. "It all came together in the last month or two to a real crescendo. His last albums haven't sold as much, but this one will appeal to a much broader base. He shows all the signs of being one of the great lyricists, on par with (Bruce) Springsteen, Bono and (Bob) Dylan."
Eminem promised fans a different set of releases last year -- "Relapse" and "Relapse 2" -- but shifted gears almost as soon as he started the latter. In December, he released "Relapse: The Refill," a deluxe album with bonus new material, to keep fans satisfied as he kept recording.
"He already knew what sort of mistakes he had made with the previous album and where he wanted to go from there," says Just Blaze, who was the first producer to enter the studio with Eminem for "Recovery" sessions late last year.
"I would go back and listen to songs off 'The Marshall Mathers LP,' 'The Eminem Show' and some of 'Encore' and ask, 'Why don't my music feel like this anymore?'" Eminem recalls. "'The Way I Am,' 'Criminal' and 'Toy Soldiers' were songs that meant something. I wanted there to be a reason why I was making each song, instead of making it just to make it."
Eminem recorded most of "Recovery" in his new hometown studio, built in part to combat his reclusive habits during addiction. "I still have the studio at my house (too), but it reminds me of when I was in a really dark place," he says. "As soon as all the pills were flushed out of my system and I started seeing things clearer, going downstairs in my basement and recording creeped me out a little bit."
Eminem says he recorded "at least three or four albums' worth" of material for "Recovery." "I must have gone through 200 to 300 beats," he says. "I probably picked a hundred of them and made songs to all of them and then nailed it down. I wanted to put the best of the best on this record."
Rosenberg says of the track "Love the Way You Lie," which features Rihanna and chronicles an abusive relationship, "Marshall wrote it with Rihanna in mind and hoped that she was open to taking on that subject matter. She heard it and thought that it would be a great opportunity to do that."
The song "You're Never Over" is a tribute to Proof that his most devout fans are citing as a breakthrough.
"It makes me feel like, 'Finally, I got it,'" Eminem says. "It took me a long time to write the right song for him, and I think two things came into play with that. One was just being in a better place to be able to deal with it. And as soon as I got that beat from Just (Blaze), the chorus came in my head and I was like, 'Yo, this could be it.' I wrote anywhere from eight to 10 records about Proof, but nothing was right until I got that beat."
Eminem made it clear that "Recovery" meant change the moment he released the song "Not Afraid." For years, his albums' lead singles -- from "My Name Is" to "We Made You" -- were celebrity-bashing tirades set to sing-songy choruses. In their accompanying music videos, he'd dress up like his subjects (Elvis and Michael Jackson, most notoriously) or subject them to violent fantasies (Moby).
With "Not Afraid," Eminem stuck to an inspirational narrative, telling troubled listeners to "come take my hand" over a propulsive Boi-1da beat. Fans responded. "Not Afraid" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and again put him in rarefied company -- only 15 other artists have achieved the same feat, starting with Michael Jackson in 1995 with "You Are Not Alone."
Like his surprise set at the Red Bull EmSee event, Eminem's recent TV appearances have had little advance fanfare. A viral spot with former ShamWow spokesman Vince Shlomi surfaced without warning, and on the album's release date, he played the rooftop of Manhattan's Ed Sullivan Theater with Jay-Z, a performance that will air Friday (June 25) on "Late Show With David Letterman." A performance of "Won't Back Down" with the Roots will air on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" the same night.
Other appearances, however, have been much less stealth. On May 12, Eminem and New York native Jay-Z attended a baseball game in Detroit to announce that they'd play two joint stadium shows in their hometowns. The concerts, scheduled for early September, will be produced by Live Nation Entertainment.
"They brought the idea to me, and as soon as they mentioned Jay, I was good," Eminem says. "I'm always honored to work with Jay."
Though Eminem is booked to perform at a series of European festivals in July and the Epicenter 2010 Festival in Fontana, California, in September, he's taking his time planning a full-fledged tour.
"I'll do these shows and see how I feel afterward, then set up a couple more," Eminem says. "I've had to relearn to do shows sober, because there were so many years that I didn't know how to do it. Alcohol, Valium -- all these things were crutches for me so that I didn't have to feel anything when I went onstage. Everything right now is a step at a time, a day at a time."