Widely regarded as one of hip-hop's best writers of all time, "Deja Vu" stands out as the most devastating song of Eminem's career.
Eminem has been brutally honest since The Slim Shady LP released in 1999. With Dr. Dre in the co-pilot's chair spurring him on, Slim Shady left nothing on the table, weaving an elaborate and detail-rich autobiographical tapestry across his vast discography. Singling out one song as the realest shit he ever wrote is no easy feat given the scope of the competition. Yet with every passing year the case for “Deja Vu” continues to strengthen. A surprising turn, perhaps, given that Relapse is by-and-large a conceptual horrorcore album. Yet the moments of humanity that do surface benefit from the project’s darker tone, appropriate given the gravity of Em’s revelations.
Relapse is lined with impressive production work from Dr. Dre and his team, who immersed themselves in Slim’s macabre thematic vision. While Dre was no stranger to the dark banger beforehand, his foray into full-blown horrorcore was handled with the guiding hand of an orchestral visionary. For the most part, his eeriest instrumentals served as menacing mood music over which Em’s accented and depraved serial killer could prowl. On “Deja Vu,” however, the curtain was pulled back and the mask was lifted. For the first time in what felt like years, fans were forced to confront the man beneath. The result was among the most vulnerable, and perhaps most impressively penned, tracks of Eminem’s career.
While subtle, Dre’s production on “Deja Vu” might stand as the album’s crowning musical achievement. Representing inner turmoil through the subtlety of a simple guitar riff, a slightly overdriven flip of Naughty By Nature’s “Yoke The Joker.” As far as percussion, Dre opts for a scaled-back, almost boom-bap kick-clap combo, delivered with the lethargy of a slow-burning dirge. The chorus is given additional urgency through a smothering organ, haunting in its progression; the perfect complement to Eminem’s vulnerability, the severity of which is reflected within his defeated diction. “Sometimes I feel so alone, I just don't know, feels like I've been down this road before,” he raps. “So lonely and cold, it's like something takes over me, as soon as I go home and close the door.”
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There’s something highly personal about a collaboration of this nature, and it’s no wonder Em looked to his longtime friend and mentor to lay the foundation. Make no mistake, “Deja Vu” is a reflection of Eminem at his lowest point, only revisited through the lens of hindsight. Not only did it serve to provide longtime Shady Records loyalists with some much-needed answers, but it also provided a disturbing update. By his own admission, Eminem was on death’s door. In keeping with his fondness for gallows humor, the gravity of his situation was delivered in a cavalier fashion. “See me and you, we almost had the same outcome Heath/ cause that Christmas, you know the whole pneumonia thing? It was bologna, was it the methadone, ya think?” he raps, confirming the severe toll his long-rumored battle with addiction had nearly taken. And doing so as part of a ridiculously tight multisyllabic rhyme scheme, at that.
Though much of Relapse’s conceptual nature derives from its loose horrorcore narrative, the topic of drug abuse is a lingering presence throughout. At times it’s delivered in tongue-in-cheek fashion, adding a deranged layer of disassociation to his fictitious murder sprees. Yet the album begins with the disturbing “Dr. West,” which kicks off the twisted road to “Deja Vu.” Though the segue into “3 AM” aligns the intro closer to dark fantasy than reality, that all changes when Eminem begins shedding his conceptual layers and revealing his genuine self. Suddenly, the duel with his seemingly demonic doctor is put into perspective. This was a battle that nearly cost Eminem his life, sparking an alternate timeline where the legendary rapper passed away in December of 2007. To hear it addressed with such brutal honesty was a startling reminder of Eminem’s mortality; like that, his entire artistic legacy was put in perspective.
It wasn’t as if fans weren’t suspect that something was afoot. Following the release of Obie Trice’s Cheers, Em’s style began to undergo a subtle, albeit noticeable shift. His contributions to 2004’s D12 World lacked his usual focus, and his fourth studio album Encore featured several moments of uncharacteristically dulled lyricism. That’s not to say his output was weak, but many wondered if the longtime feuds with Ja Rule and Benzino were beginning to take a toll on Slim’s mental health. When his best friend and D12 collaborator Proof died on April 11th, 2006, concerns for Eminem’s well-being ramped up.
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When he released his Shady Records compilation The Re-Up eight months later, many assumed he would address Proof’s death on the record. He did not. Instead, Em responded to The Re-Up’s success with further uncertainty surrounding his own career. Thoughts of retirement loomed as each verse that did arrive was subjected to heightened scrutiny. In hindsight, it’s clear that some of his music was affected by his addiction to Vicodin and Valium, which he had been using on-and-off since 2002. By his own admission, he was popping up to twenty pills a day. All the while, he was keeping the extent of his personal crisis close to the chest, surprising given his traditional habit of opening up on wax. It was that very radio silence that ultimately imbued “Deja Vu” with such power.
Using his vivid prose, Em brings the nature of his struggle to life with disturbingly realistic imagery and candid admissions. “So I take a Vicodin, splash, it hits my stomach, then ahhh, couple of weeks go by, it ain’t even like I'm getting high,” he raps, in the climactic verse. “Now I need it just not to feel sick, yeah, I'm getting by / wouldn't even be taking this shit if DeShaun didn't die / Oh yeah, there's an excuse, you lose Proof so you use / there's new rules, it's cool if it's helping you to get through.”
Aside from the never-meant-to-be released “Difficult,” “Deja Vu” marked the first time Eminem openly addressed his friend’s tragic death, with his first official tribute to come on Recovery’s “You’re Never Over.” The manner with which he does so is almost flippant, a testament to his fractured mental space at the time; few lyricists can capture a distinct moment like Eminem, who manages to reenact a personal low with hyper-detailed accuracy. While songs like “Stan” and “Bad Guy” reveal his depth as a storyteller, “Deja Vu” packs all the more punch given one simply reality: it’s a biopic, not a thriller.