The first part of what I might pretentiously position as a series of interconnected essays on the idea of comebacks. The connections are mostly thematic and tangential, and they’ll be jumping across various media, so you don’t need to read them all to appreciate the others but if you enjoy this, then watch this space… Two prolific hip-hop stars. Two big comebacks. One girl, Skylar Gray, singing the suspiciously similar dreamy hooks over the raps. An almost exactly symmetrical structure. So, what’s the difference? …Well, Diddy is the pretender to the comeback throne here, his entire career having happened in the time since Dre last released an album*. Dre is the master of the extended semi-retirement, using the vast spaces between music in a way that shows up even the most teasing post-rock soundscapes. Chronic 2001 came out, confusingly enough, in 1999. It’s now 2011. Accordingly, the Doctor cranks it all up to maximum hyperbole. The video – which manages to make Coming Home’s marching across warn-torn deserts look understated – tells you all you need to know. Dre, literally resurrected from the dead. The message is clear: He can rebuild his career. He has the technology. And form admirably matches content: the song is one long build-up, to our hero finally waking up: “It literally feels like a lifetime ago”. In the depths of the labs of Aftermath, Inc., Dre sits up, to the accompaniment of a hopeful series of bleeeeeeps from the previously flat-lined ECG, to take his rightful place as the recipient of the final verse. It’s faintly underwhelming when it does come, though. The Good Doctor is far more physically imposing – again, see the video, which answers some of the questions about exactly what Dre has been up to for the last decade by showing off his body’s transformation into a slab of pure Terminator muscle – than his voice ever really manages. Diddy is much more successful. The central gimmick, essentially Mr. Combs providing his reviews of a few well-know songs could come off as cheap, but it works. “I hear the Tears of A Clown; I hate that song”. It’s a much more distinctive reintroduction to the reawakened superstar. It’s catchier, more aggressive, cuts much more cleanly through the misty chorus, and provides a nice structural finish, where Diddy finally lands on a song he loves and makes him feel strong, to turn everything around. But for all his successes, Diddy’s company is less strong. The ‘Dirty Money’ suffix** means the addition of two women, whose contribution to the song is indistinct at best. By his side, Dre has got his trusty sidekick: Eminem plays the desperate Igor of the song, summoning his master. He swore he had Dre’s back, a decade back, in a drug-driven declaration of emotion on What’s The Difference?. So here he is, sitting in the booth, crying, surrounded by candles and pentagrams and stolen medical equipment. It’s a little embarrassing: Eminem has never been his best when being directly emotionally raw. He’s much better as the trickster, making jokes and threats in equal measure, so that the odd earnest moment catches you off guard. (Again, see that bit from What’s The Difference, which is weirdly genuinely sweet, considering it comes wrapped up in a bit of violent misogyny.) Nevertheless, he sets up the turmoil and conflict perfectly, enabling the Doctor’s return to have mythical status. The stakes are high, both artists strive to convince us. They’ve both lost people, children are invoked, the music industry is against them. The threat has to be there for the comeback to work, even if it that means manufacturing it. And Dre’s verse cuts off, mid-sentence, just to let you know he’ll be back, again. *For the purposes of this, I will be ignoring the lives of both figures as producers, choosing instead to mythologise their vocal appearances. We all have our weaknesses, I guess…**I’m aware that it is technically a group of whom Diddy is only part. But from what I can tell, at least, that seems to be in the way that any rap artist’s handle is an umbrella term for the multi-armed circus of performers than orbit every production.
Eminem’s back, kids. Back again.In case you forgot, and with a single like Break A Bottle noone’d blame you, Mathers is back up in yo’ face with Made You. And it feels important to me: Eminem’s been one of those artists who’s interested me since I was young and though he’s does a lot wrong since, stuff like Guilty Conscience and My Name Is? I love them, unreservedly. Where and when he worked, I reckon he was the last interesting rapper, after the Golden Age of Dre turned into …whatever we’re in now. To continue the comics analogy, I guess, the 90s: over-blown masculinity, bad storytelling… and too many pockets. First, because it’s the first thing I encountered: the video. It tells you everything you need to know about this song: it’s one of those Eminem-in-various-costumes videos. Yup, another one of those. Hilariously enlarged arses, parodies of pop-culture icons, and a friendly helping of big-boobed ladies. It’s shot in the exact same style as My Name Is, Without Me, and Just Lose It. Note the law of diminishing returns there. This track hurts me. To paraphrase (and sanitise; this is a family friendly blog, kids) Marsellus Wallace’s immortal words: Feel that sting? That’s disappointment fudgin’ wit ya. I was genuinely excited by all the rumours suggesting a return to roots, Dre-heavy album. “Return to roots”? That’s the place you give up, I should know that. That’s Oasis talk. Crack A Bottle was bad enough, but somehow this is worse- where that was just generic ’00s rap, a little too much hanging with Fiddy, this seems like a cynical cash-in on an Eminem Formula. And, credit where credit’s due, it does that very slickly. There’s so much of it that nearly works. Against my will, I’ve been humming it all day, which proves that the chorus and the hook underneath are good. The bit where the rap first kicks in is exciting. So…What’s missing? It feels like the biggest crime, lyrically, is the already-dated celebrity references. But Eminem’s always been doing this stuff, and back on, say, The Real Slim Shady it was exciting to hear him dropping names and messing with the pop culture around him. And, yeah, as with the video, a lot of the problem is that he’s done it all before. But its difficult to understand exactly why that was better. I think because now Eminem is, and has been for a long time, at least as a big an icon as any of the names he drops here. He’s not the outsider anymore, the guy spitting in your onion rings, when he could be anyone. This has even been addressed in Eminem songs. He’s not a rebel, he’s just a guy doing his tired old act the same way everyone he mocks does. The chorus pivots around the phrase “Rock Star” which, obviously, he is not- I’d give the old Eminem benefit of the doubt that it’s satire, of the increasingly stupid trend to sing about being a rockstar when you’re not, but it seems just as likely he’s jumping on that bandwagon. Which is the problem with everything. For the second time now, the song references Without Me‘s “Guess Who’s Back” opening. That’s two comebacks since the first- which is an important touchstone, I reckon, as it feels like the last time Eminem actually got away with this stuff, just about. It was the first time you could see the Eminem Formula poking through, and every song that’s used it since is clearly worse for it. There’re even blueprints for a new formula: Mr Mathers’ new thing, apparently, is a shouted announcement with a heavy echo behind it. The thing is, We Made You is probably better than the singles he’s been putting out since the 8 Mile period. Writing this has made me realise I don’t hate it as much as I thought. But after years of the same, it’s just so obviously nothing special. Relapse, it seems, is a stunningly self-prophetic title. (Obligatory confession: Two whole weeks since I wrote this (I’d better get my act together- this is supposed to be a twice-weekly thing, life/exams be damned!) and everytime I hear this song, I admit, my ears prick up. I’m interested in it, if only in a distanced way; and I’m beginning to think I hate the video much more than I hate the song.)