Karin Catt
Simon Vozick-Levinson
May 21, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Eminem is running late: 1,200 fans are packed in front of an outdoor L.A. stage for the taping of the rapper’s May 15 Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance, waiting for a set that should have started 45 minutes ago. It’s Eminem’s first major U.S. music performance after a mysterious four-year absence from public view — or at least it’s supposed to be. But hey, what’s a few more minutes when fans have been waiting for this comeback for so long, wondering where the world’s most famous rapper had disappeared to?

At last, Eminem bounds onto the stage, joined by his touring DJ, the Alchemist, and rapper (and longtime pal) Denaun Porter. The crowd chants along as he tears through a few tunes from his long-promised album, Relapse (which will hit stores four days later, on May 19). When Eminem finishes, they plead in vain for ”one more song!”

They’re not the only ones hungry for more. In the weeks leading up to its release, Relapse has been hailed by critics and fans — many of whom heard it when it leaked earlier this month — as a landmark in the 36-year-old rapper’s career, a stunning return to form from the man who is arguably contemporary rap’s most talented lyricist. Even the competition is impressed. ”I think that the ‘Insane’ song is genius,” Kanye West tells EW, referring to one of Relapse‘s most outrageous tracks.

Relapse is already shaping up to be one of summer’s most talked-about albums — and, quite likely, one of its biggest. Two early singles have made digital history. In February, ”Crack a Bottle” sold a record 418,000 downloads in its first week. It was Eminem’s first No. 1 since 2002’s ”Lose Yourself.” Two months later, another song, ”We Made You,” racked up 758,000 views on MTV.com in its first 24 hours alone, the highest single-day total by far in the site’s history. The weekend before its release, Relapse was streamed more than 7 million times on MySpace Music.

Yet for all that, the album almost didn’t get made. As Eminem launches into his big comeback, he’s finally opening up about the past four years, when he shunned the spotlight amid dark rumors of drug abuse and depression. The scariest part is how many of those tales turned out to be true. Tonight, Eminem is back. But he had to go through a personal hell to get here.

NEXT PAGE: ”I have never felt so much pain in my life. His death brought me to my knees.”

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