By Simon Vozick-Levinson
August 26, 2010 at 09:28 PM EDT

Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.comTake a moment to consider the genius of the plan that took Eminem’s Recovery to its seventh week atop the Billboard 200 albums chart yesterday. He’s had an incredible summer, leaving his No. 1 perch only twice, when Arcade Fire and Avenged Sevenfold each eked out a slim 4,000-unit win. That kind of chart run doesn’t just happen by accident these days — especially not for a rapper who’s pushing 40 and was presumed permanently retired as recently as two years ago. So what’s Eminem’s secret?

Recovery‘s long-lasting success is the result of a carefully calibrated marketing strategy. In the months leading up to its release, Eminem’s team essentially tore up their own decade-old playbook. Forget the celebrity-baiting stunt singles or fire-breathing interviews the old Slim Shady would have led with. Instead, they opened in April with a simple announcement that his next project would be titled Recovery instead of Relapse 2. This seemingly minor change hinted at his intentions for the new album. Whether or not you already contributed to Relapse‘s enormous 2009 sales, you needed to hear this one. He was done backsliding into musical habits that might or might not connect with 2010’s buying public. Eminem was ready to start fresh.

Two weeks later, Eminem expanded on this sales pitch with “Not Afraid.” At the time I was lukewarm on the single. I’ve since come to admire how succinctly it introduced Recovery‘s key talking points. In case anyone missed that press release, he rejected his previous work even more emphatically: “Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehhhh.” The song’s anthemic hook made it clear what Em meant to replace all that with. “Everybody, come take my hand,” he sang-spoke. “We’ll walk this road together, through the storm/Whatever weather, cold or warm/Just lettin’ you know that you’re not alone/Holla if you feel like you’ve been down the same road.” Not even 2002’s “Lose Yourself,” the clearest antecedent in Eminem’s catalog for this kind of inspirational talk, had gone so far. The guy who used to flaunt his uniquely twisted personality seemed to have matured into an empathetic everyman, someone capable of seeing his own faults and forgiving yours. People who felt they’d outgrown the nasty, juvenile aspects of Eminem’s earlier work might get the impression that he had, too.

It worked. “Not Afraid” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart in May. And when Recovery hit stores on June 18, the pieces fell into place. Recovery sold 741,000 copies that first week — more than Relapse, more than anyone since AC/DC in 2008. Through some combination of shoring up fans who’d held back on Relapse and reeling in brand new ones, Eminem had successfully expanded his commercial reach.

Then came the trickiest part. Even Relapse, with its far less savvy singles, had been rewarded with a heavy first week of 608,000 units moved. Eminem’s name alone pretty much guaranteed that. But Relapse had dropped steeply from there, sinking past the 100,000 sold mark in just its fourth frame. Recovery, now in its ninth week as of yesterday’s chart, has yet to dip below 116,000. It owes its notably slower decline to one thing, and that’s “Love the Way You Lie.”

That Rihanna duet is far from my favorite song on Recovery, but it was a fiendishly smart choice for a second single. By enlisting a mainstream marquee name as his collaborator, Eminem repeated one of his signature moves from the old days, getting his single played on pop and rap radio at once. Nor was this some random guest feature for its own sake (like, say, teaser track “Won’t Back Down,” whose head-banging guitar riffs and Pink hook added rock as well as pop appeal to the mix). “Love the Way You Lie” is a cautionary tale about domestic violence, with a chorus sung by perhaps the single most famous recent survivor of real-life domestic violence. That unrepeatable combination made this song impossible to ignore. Even if you were tired of hearing Eminem rap about his own abuse-warped relationships for 10 years straight, chances are you didn’t feel the same way about Rihanna (presumably) singing about hers. Besides, the millions who concluded that Eminem was in a wiser, more serious phase of his life after hearing “Not Afraid” were primed to embrace him for addressing this topic — far outnumbering people like me, who found Em’s treatment of these issues jarringly shallow. The arresting video starring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan didn’t hurt, either.

That brings Eminem to where he stands now. As the summer draws to a close, so does Recovery‘s lease on that No. 1 spot. Depending on how strong Katy Perry’s sales are in the coming weeks, Em might make it back to the top for a chart or two in September. But “Love the Way You Lie” won’t be the biggest song in the country forever. The rest of Recovery contains some amazing rapping, but very few conceptual or musical hooks as sticky as the ones on “Not Afraid” or “Love the Way You Lie.” If Eminem spins off another single big enough to bring Recovery back to the top of the Billboard 200 in November, December, or January — well, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but if it does, his plan for this album is even more brilliant than anyone knows.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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