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Is Eminem Hip-Hop’s Brightest Star?

Eminem’s new album not only puts his infamous pill addiction behind him, it might just make him hip-hop’s alpha dog all over again. So why isn’t this man smiling? [Cover story excerpt]

As tourist attractions go, 19946 Dresden Street doesn’t look like much. A squat, brick-faced house on the east side of Detroit, its front yard is a rectangle of dry soil, flecked with trash and tufts of grass. At just past 11 on a sunny Tuesday morning, a woman in her late 20s named Sierra is standing on the front porch, scanning the street, holding her infant daughter on her hip.

“People come by here all the time,” Sierra says. Her voice is low and friendly, and she wears a small stud in her nose. Some time after she moved in three years ago, she says, she discovered a bit of trivia about the place: This is the house where Eminem spent his teenage years, the house he put on the cover of 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and the house his mom claims he used to carry around with him in the form of a tiny, specially commissioned replica. The listing practically writes itself: house for sale, 2br, 767 square feet, Eminem’s “rosebud.”

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Go behind the scenes of Eminem’s SPIN shoot!

“They come from all over,” Sierra says. “They take pictures, ask questions.” Several visitors have tried to buy the house — one offered $56,000, another $72,000 — but she likes it too much to consider selling. A neighbor once told her that, years ago, when the place was uninhabited, she broke in, found boxes full of the teenage Marshall Mathers’ stuff, and sold it on eBay. “I don’t know where she is now,” Sierra says, nodding toward the boarded-up house to the left of hers.

Among the people who have flocked to Dresden Street to commune with the ghost of Eminem is Eminem himself. Every so often, he’ll climb into one of his cars — sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, sometimes with security, sometimes alone — and drive down from his home in the northern suburbs to look at various places he grew up: the house on Fairport Avenue, the one on Novara Street, the one here on Dresden. He likes to creep by, do a U-turn, and make a second pass. Occasionally, residents spot him through his tinted windows and shout, “What up, Em?”

“Those neighborhoods aren’t that far from where I live now,” Eminem says. It’s a few hours after my visit with Sierra, and the 37-year-old rapper and I are in the ultramodern recording studio in suburban Detroit where he’s finishing Recovery, his seventh album, much of which was recorded here on an enormous mixing board he bought from his mentor, Dr. Dre. His face lean, bordering on gaunt, Eminem sits in a leather rolling chair in a plain white T-shirt, dark, baggy jeans, and white Nike Air Max 92s, leaning forward with his hands folded.

The last time he went by 19946 Dresden, he says, was a year and a half ago, and a side window was boarded up. “I didn’t know if there was a fire or what,” he says. “It looked like no one lived there.” It is hard, at least for strangers, to get Eminem to do something with his face other than stare impassively, but when I describe my visit, his eyes widen. “It’s still there?” he asks.

“It may sound corny, but I’ll go by and try to remember how things were when I was in those houses,” he continues. “I’ll go back and remember, like, fuck, man, how life was back then. How much of a struggle it was. As time goes by, you might get content and forget things.”

In his stiff, alert bearing, there’s no hint of the manic playfulness you get in his music or his videos. This is especially striking because the studio, which he owns and refers to as “my house,” is a pleasure dome: A dozen vintage arcade games line one wall of the main lounge, facing a soda fountain. A pile of unopened shoeboxes — freebies sent by Nike — sits next to a window facing an interior garden equipped with a barbecue grill. Many successful people — not to mention virtually every rapper in history — say they thrive on struggle, even as they’re surrounded by opulence. But Eminem, the biggest recording artist of the 2000s, to the tune of 80 million albums sold, has a relationship to adversity that is unique and extreme. He made his name, foremost, as a fighter, as a threat, as an irritant — battling for acceptance as a white MC, railing against censorious parents’ groups and pundits, lashing out viciously against everyone from his mother to George W. Bush to ‘N Sync.

A few years ago, he says, when he felt he’d run out of opponents to challenge, out of hypocrisies to expose, and out of constraints to bridle under, his antagonizing energies turned themselves inward, nastily, with the help of a prescription-drug addiction that made him all but unrecognizable to himself. “I was trapped in my head. I’d spent most of my career going against the grain. Calling bullshit. And suddenly, I started running out of enemies,” he says. “I started to become that cliché: my own worst enemy.”

Recovery is about that period in his life. Unfiltered and unrelenting, it’s the most emotionally grueling album Eminem has released, detailing his addiction, anxieties, and nightmares with barely any recourse to the schizoid character-juggling, gross-out humor, or splatter-film gore that have been his trademarks until now. Like the car trips he likes to take through his old neighborhoods, reminding himself how bad things were, Recovery is an often harrowing trip down one blighted memory lane — the kind of street you don’t feel quite safe on, even at 11 A.M.

Read the full Eminem cover story in the August 2010 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.