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By John Brodeur

Album sales have been flirting with record lows on a weekly basis this year. Justin Bieber topped the Billboard Top 200 on May 19 with just 60,000 sold, in the industry’s worst week since 1991. For contrast: 10 years ago, ’N Sync took that spot with sales of 2.4 million—more than five times the total for the entire Top 10 on May 19. So, one can imagine, the big labels must be straight-up wetting themselves over a recent glut of monster albums. The massive success of recent releases from Eminem and Drake won’t save the RIAA from damnation—good luck getting that $1 billion from LimeWire—but to see a top seller break a quarter-million is a rarity these days. Two weeks in a row? That’s practically an X-File.

Recovery, Marshall Mathers’ seventh album as Eminem, debuted at the top of this week’s Billboard album chart with sales near 750,000. With a healthy head start on whatever competitors remain in 2010 (Kanye, Coldplay, possibly Radiohead), Recovery probably will top the year-end chart, adding another mark to the rapper’s mind-boggling chart history (two of his titles among the five best- selling records of the 2000s). It’s an uptick in first-week sales from last May’s Relapse, Eminem’s attempt at a return-to-form record that suffered from the just-rehabbed superstar not knowing which form he was trying to return to.

It’s pleasing to report that Recovery is definitely not Relapse II, as was the originally announced plan. Mathers ended up working with at least a half dozen producers and, reportedly, selecting the album’s beats from a pool of hundreds. This is a good thing: Recovery is easily the freshest Eminem album, in terms of pending expiration date, since The Marshall Mathers LP. Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, and Alex da Kid are among the producers bringing the freshness, and the 16 tracks (plus one unlisted) are sequenced thoughtfully: DJ Khalil’s four tracks (some of the best) are dropped in two near the front and two near the back; the two Boi-1da productions are paired near the middle (a minor lull). Bonus points for keeping it skit-free. The album has enough sonic variety to keep it listenable well into its last quarter, something that couldn’t be said for Encore.

The more things change, right? Sure: Eminem leads off the album with an entire verse of “S my D” before calling himself a “mean cocksucker” moments later. “The last thing you wanna do/Is have me spit out a rhyme and say I was writing this and I thought of you,” he raps on “Cold Winds Blow.” It sounds like a late cut from Relapse, in that it’s a misleading bit of extroversion for an album primarily about change. Worse, though, is that it’s not all that funny—nobody does comical aggression better than Eminem, but this just comes off as boxing the air. Thankfully these lashings-out at seemingly random targets—Mariah Carey and Austin Powers are among the handful of awkwardly stale pop-culture references that dot the lyrics—are fewer than usual, and merely a distraction. (“W.T.P.”—or “White Trash Party” is another ho-hum attempt at a comic piece.)

Thankfully, Eminem is just as interesting without the dick jokes, and the parts of this album that stick to the game plan are very good. Among the best bits: The DJ Khalil-produced, Pink-assisted “Won’t Back Down” features one of the best verse performances and some great production tricks; Khalil’s “25 to Life” closes with a bold challenge (“Fuck you hip-hop, I’m leaving/My life sentence is served”); “No Love” (whose Just Blaze beat samples that Haddaway song, of all things) sports a primo first-verse spot from Lil Wayne, one of record’s very few guest appearances—another bonus point. On that last point, the guest appearances, all four of them, actually benefit the tracks. (Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” hook should be cash money by the end of summer.) This almost makes up for that first verse.

Mathers manages to string a loose, recovery-themed narrative across the record’s 77 minutes, most directly via spoken intros on several songs. “Thank everybody for being so patient . . . while I figure this shit out,” he says on “Talkin’ 2 Myself”; on “Cinderella Man” he says he’s “not even supposed to be here right now,” making one of the few explicit references to the severity of his addiction. As to the personal stuff, the Emile- produced “Going Through Changes” (with a vintage Sabbath sample!) could be this album’s “Toy Soldiers,” while lead single “Not Afraid” echoes “Lose Yourself” in its inspirational theme (“some of you might still be in that place . . . follow me”) and its huge chart success (a No. 1 debut, adding another note to his Wikipedia entry). Confessionals like these have proved to be the real through-line for Eminem’s recording career: serious subjects tackled with a wicked sense of irony, from one of the best wordsmiths in rap history. His flow is still there, but the message tends to drift. Mathers engaging in a not-really-kinder, not-quite-gentler way. It will be interesting to hear what kind of records he makes in his 40s, something that couldn’t be said for almost any other rapper.

The third-biggest debut of 2010—now 4th, thanks to the record just discussed—came from overnight sensation Drake, whose Thank Me Later has rung up more than half a million copies since dropping a few weeks ago. The anticipation for the album seemed to build at a fever pitch, with the Canadian rapper hitting the apex of his stardom (thus far) the week of the release. (A free Drake performance in downtown New York City the day of the release was canceled due to unmanageably high turnout.) According to an e-mail posted on the widely-read Lefsetz Letter blog, producer Bob Ezrin—of Pink Floyd fame, a natural authority on hip-hop—called Drake “hip-hop’s Barack Obama.” (Which, I guess, makes Eminem hip-hop’s Glenn Beck. Or something.)

Ezrin goes on: He complements Drake’s “compelling voice, articulate and inventive, a product of two worlds with a uniquely broad worldview, honest to a fault, self-critical but egotistical, overthinking everything, seeing all the sides all at the same time.” The lunatic is on the grass, dude. The modern-pop-art-style cover art does little to dissuade the Obama comparison, while noted similarities between it and the cover of Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers. But while he does seem to be promoting a something-for-everyone platform—guests include Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne, so we know Drake’s a populist; “The Resistance” makes him the first major artist to directly scarf a beat from 808s and Heartbreak—his own personality is lost in the sea of generic party tracks, guest spots and star producers that crowd the middle of the disc. It doesn’t help his case that he’s trying to be both a rapper and a crooner—he’s very good at both (the first five or six tunes are outstanding), but needs more of a unified direction to make that personality come through for a full 60 minutes.

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