It’s felt sort of empty without him, hasn’t it? One of the biggest superstars on the planet, Eminem has been on a three-year hiatus, dealing with some awfully heavy personal issues. He’s back now, though. And up to his old tricks. Sick. But healthier than ever.

Interview By Datwon Thomas
Photography By Perou 

Tucked away in the VIP room of Morton’s steak house in downtown Cleveland, Eminem sits at the head of a long, 12-seat dinner table, looking more like a high school baseball shortstop than a multimillionaire don of the hip-hop world. He’s rocking a white Jordan fitted cap to the back, with a platinum cross dangling atop a wrinkled white T-shirt, black sweats, and Nike Air Max on the feet. Along with his longtime manager and partner, Paul Rosenberg, D12 producer Denaun Porter, and an eight-member team of label support, assistants and security, the 36-year-old rap star is watching Michigan State handle Connecticut in an NCAA Final Four game, which is playing on a huge flat-screen hanging on the mahogany walls. Repping Detroit harder (and more successfully) than General Motors, the crew oohs and aahs and screams at every basket, urging the Spartans to victory. Em cracks jokes about his publicist peeing on people in a riot back in the days. (Never happened.) But just as everything seems dorm-roomish and festive, word comes down. “Let’s roll. Em has to be there now.”

That’s a sentiment no doubt shared by millions of fans worldwide. One of hip-hop’s biggest-selling artists ever (his 34 million total domestic album sales ranks second only to Tupac), Eminem has been mostly MIA for the past three years. After an aborted European tour in summer 2005, the troubled icon ducked out of the spotlight to deal with a growing drug problem—one exacerbated, the next year, by the failure of his second marriage to Kimberly Scott, and even more by the loss of his best friend and rap partner, Proof, who died in a tragic, and still somewhat hazy, shooting incident in a bar on the very 8 Mile Road that Em has made so famous.

But he’s back. This spring marks the release of his sixth solo album, Relapse, the first of two on tap for the year. Judging from a quick listen to the setup singles “Crack a Bottle” (with fellow Interscope Records pillars Dr. Dre and 50 Cent) and “We Made You,” and a few select unreleased tracks, it’s pretty clear that rap’s nimble-tongued clown prince wants to reclaim his throne. With an emphasis on the cartoony, TV-steeped ultraviolence that rocketed him to fame 10 years ago, Em’s rapping in his Slim Shady guise, with a nod to his favorite Marvel comic-book hero, the trigger-happy vigilante Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher. “The Punisher just seemed appropriate for my return to the scene,” he says. “Shady with a vengeance!” Everyone feels the wrath—from horror-flick serial killers, like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, to train-wreck starlets, like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, to failed vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. In the video for the first single, “We Made You,” Kim Kardashian gets the wood-chipper treatment.

But tonight there’s more serious business to attend to. It’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 24th annual induction ceremony, and the blue-eyed, formerly golden-haired god of hip-hop’s modern era will be introducing the greatest group from hip-hop’s early years, Run-DMC, before they take the stage and receive their prestigious due. Fresh from Morton’s, backstage at the museum’s performance hall, crumpled-up, handwritten speech tight in his fist, Em paces the small dressing room right next to the one occupied by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. “I’m about to rock this shit!” he says, goofing on his own nervous energy, as a black leather coat arrives for him to wear. “I don’t know what I’m about to rock, but I’m about to do it! I’ma, ummm, rock this speech!”

He hops up, dons the coat and a matching Run-DMC–style fedora, takes the walkway to the stage and busts a b-boy stance at the podium. The audience leaps to its feet. The place goes crazy. Somebody screams “It’s Eminem! He’s back!”