When the world last touched base with Eminem's music career, things were looking rough.
In the fall of 2005, the Detroit rap superstar was at a nadir -- tumbling into rehab, canceling concerts, contemplating an end to his recording career. Behind the scenes, say some close associates, he'd begun questioning his own ability to "hear a hit." The famously reclusive musician slipped out of the public eye.
Flash forward to now. Eminem, healthy and confident, is set to reemerge, first with a much-trumpeted memoir, then with "Relapse," his first new album in more than four years. No release date is set -- the album may be out by year's end -- but a freewheeling single, "I'm Having a Relapse," has already hit the Internet. There are even rumblings of a 2009 tour.
It remains to be seen whether Eminem can recapture his glory days of the early '00s, when massive record sales, critical acclaim and priceless street cred converged to make him one of the world's most recognizable celebrities. But the star born Marshall Mathers, chosen this month by Vibe magazine readers as the "best rapper alive," seems hungry to give it a shot.
Burrowed away in the state-of-the-art Ferndale studio he purchased last year, he has accumulated dozens of new tracks. His longtime collaborator Dr. Dre has been a frequent visitor, as have other artists -- including Elton John, who quietly ducked in and out of town for sessions earlier this month.
Major changes also have shaped Eminem's personal and professional life: His best friend and fellow rapper, DeShaun (Proof) Holton, was fatally gunned down in April 2006. Months later, Eminem ended his brief second marriage to Kim Scott.
His purchase of Effigy Studio on 9 Mile saw him cutting day-to-day ties with many of those down the street at 54 Sound, Eminem's longtime go-to studio. (Some 54 Sound personnel remain closely involved, including musician-writer Luis Resto and engineer Mike Strange, whose role has significantly grown.)
Even as work on the album continues, Eminem's return from seclusion -- his relapse, if you will -- is under way. On Tuesday, Dutton Books will issue "The Way I Am," a glossy 208-page book with candid photos, original lyric sheets and introspective writing by Eminem on topics such as fame, fatherhood and depression.
Dutton President Brian Tart describes the book as the first step in Eminem's campaign to "re-enter the pop culture all over again." Enthusiastic early reception from book retailers has soothed any fears that Eminem's absence made the public's heart go wander.
"He's one of a handful of people who can go away for three years and come back and generate a great deal of excitement," Tart said. "He's definitely still considered at the top of the heap. People are anxious to find out about the new album, and equally anxious to find out what these last three years have been like."
New album is real test
Die-hard fans will undoubtedly relish the book. But it's "Relapse" that will be the real test. Mathers turns 36 today -- a ripe old hip-hop benchmark (and an age he mocked while ridiculing techno star Moby on the 2002 hit "Without Me"). While he has appeared on projects by other rappers, Eminem has not issued a major new work of his own since 2004's "Encore," whose title -- along with the hits-compilation "Curtain Call" -- hinted at the coming hiatus.
Recording sessions moved to Miami in recent weeks as Eminem and Dre set their eyes on a final track list. Among the album's early collaborators was Jeff Bass, the producer and cowriter who shared an Oscar for Eminem's "Lose Yourself." He worked with Eminem on more than 25 tracks in the 2-year period after the rapper's sleeping pill-addiction treatment at a Brighton facility.
"The music I was giving him was going back to the original Eminem sound: raw tracks, very similar to 'The Marshall Mathers LP,' " Bass said. "They were made more for rapping off the top of his head, as opposed to writing a story."
The album wasn't just a lengthy work-in-progress -- for a time, it wasn't even an album.
"He's always spent time in the studio, every day, knocking out beats. So he began collecting songs without even realizing it," said Joel Martin, who supervises Eminem's song rights. "He'd be recording for other people's projects and inevitably end up with tracks he really liked."
While the death of mentor Proof ultimately inspired new material, the tragedy initially "took the heart out of everything everybody was doing," Martin said. Even paying musical tribute proved tough, recalled Bass.
"I had submitted a bunch of tracks with Proof in mind," said the producer. "Eminem would go in the vocal booth and get through a verse, then run out. He couldn't handle it."
Since 2005, Eminem's notoriously exclusive inner circle has grown tighter. Album details are known only to a small group of insiders in Detroit and at Interscope Records, where Eminem is under contract for three more records.
Detroit hip-hop artist Trick Trick, whose upcoming album "The Villain" includes contributions from Eminem, said the material he's heard is "old school with a new twist" -- and finds the rapper embracing his early musical persona.
"I can tell you this much: Slim Shady is back. Not Marshall Mathers," he said. "Slim Shady, that jackass everybody fell in love with? Yeah, he's back."
These are different times
Eminem will arrive at a pop-music world in transition. Hip-hop sales are down, club music is morphing, the Top 40 demographic is older. His own fan base has matured: The class of '99 has its 30s in sight.
Despite that, said radio industry observer Sean Ross, the rapper will likely enjoy big-time buzz. At his peak, after all, Eminem "was the Rolling Stones of 1975 to a 17-year-old."
"It's certainly gotten harder, but at this moment, there's nothing else so phenomenal that he wouldn't get attention," Ross said.
All it takes is one irresistible hit, he said, pointing to the recent rebound of another Detroit star.
"The lesson of Kid Rock is that nobody is more than one great song away from a resurgence," Ross said.
Barry Beal, president of the Detroit chain Shantinique Records, said customer chatter about Eminem has dropped during the past year, along with sales of his back catalog. Still, he said, Eminem joins Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg in an elite group of evergreen artists.
"Things have changed, but I think the public will still respond to a new Eminem album," Beal said. "Hip-hop is like fashion, and styles come and go. But I'm quite sure Eminem has still got the following."
Producer Bass is confident.
"It's about him putting those solid 10 or 11 songs together, without having to reinvent himself," he said. "He just has to stay true to himself, and he'll be fine. Eminem has to be Eminem."