Eminem's eighth solo album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, is being publicized as a sequel to what many would refer to as the man's finest work, The Marshall Mathers LP (duh). While this might have excited a stan or two who haven't listened to any of the man's output post-Encore, I was left with a mixture of concern and dread. Concern because a lot of artists are running the whole “sequel” thing into the ground, and dread because, well, have you heard Eminem's music lately?
The man born Marshall Bruce Mathers III has evolved from an electric battle rapper to a pop-radio fixture with a solid blueprint, always involving some sort of sung hook, usually provided by Rihanna or from some different pop-radio fixture that he would have verbally attacked at the beginning of his career. A lot of this has been blamed on his failure to remain addicted to drugs. While there may be some truth to this, since his first two post-rehab projects, Relapse and Recovery, both, for lack of a better word because I'm tired, sucked, the fact of the matter is that the Slim Shady we all know and wish would miraculously reappear still exists within our host, as evidenced by some of his verbal acrobatics on the Bad Meets Evil album (his collaboration with fellow Detroit powerhouse Royce da 5'9”).
So when The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was announced a few months ago, rumors swirled around what direction Eminem was moving toward. Was he regressing to his youth, when his just-don't-give-a-fuck attitude and rampant homophobia threatened to eclipse his blossoming career? Or was this just a publicity stunt designed to move some quick units before people realized the bait-and-switch? Hip hop heads found themselves pleasantly surprised at the recent leak “Rap God”, which positioned the project as what could possibly be the most lyrical album of 2013, but those same heads were stumped by the album's lead single, “Berzerk”, and its Billy Squire riffs, so this really could go either way.
For what it's worth, I still feel that The Marshall Mathers LP is the man's best album (although my favorite song remains The Slim Shady LP's “Role Model”). It contains a cross-section of everything that once made Marshall Mathers one of the most exciting artists in our chosen genre: shock value (“Kim”), self-reflection (“Stan”, probably the best song Eminem will ever write), controversy (all of the gay slurs and references to the Columbine shooting throughout, although this could all also be referred to as “shock value”), a general sense of fun (“Bitch Please II” is possibly the most enjoyable random collaboration Eminem has ever been involved in, since it acts as his unofficial induction into Dr. Dre's crew), and, well, the album actually works as a whole (it's far better than the sum of its parts, anyway). So our host to name this project The Marshall Mathers LP 2, even though he has quickly diffused any argument by claiming that this isn't really what he would consider an actual sequel, courts some unreasonably high expectations that don't even make goddamn sense in 2013.
I mean, seriously, is anyone really checking for Eminem after fucking Recovery? You guys remember what that sounded like, right?
1. BAD GUY
No intro, no inane public service announcement, and no real warning: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 begins with our host rapping, in a calm manner, about plotting to murder someone. Lest you think he's back on his “Kim” shit, though, he throws in a goofy curveball that turns this into a direct-to-DVD sequel to “Stan”, kinda-sorta retroactively ruining that track's ending. Our host rhymes in several different affectations on “Bad Guy”, a bleh S1 and M-Phazes production that features a useless, nonsensical hook from Sarah Jaffe (to be fair, the hook on “Stan” also didn't fit the actual song, but as it was lifted directly from Dido's “Thank You”, which, as you'll recall, also served as the foundation for Mark the 45 King's beat, I'm prone to letting that slide). Em ends the tale (I won't spoil it for you two, but it's debatable whether you should spend the six-plus minutes it takes to sit through the track: maybe just look up the lyrics instead, as they are not bad) by shouting at the listener (over a StreetRunner beat that works a little bit better, but not much), effectively setting up the rest of the project. The attempt at recapturing his glory days is admirable: at least Marshall is trying. But this wasn't great: I liked Em's lyricism, and the actual story was alright, but the track as a whole was a bit empty. A different beat probably could have helped this one click.
2. PARKING LOT (SKIT)
A direct continuation of the skit that ended “Criminal”, the final song on The Marshall Mathers LP. And Em is trying to say that this isn't a sequel?
3. RHYME OR REASON
If Marshall (and producer Rick Rubin) had merely just rhymed over The Zombies' “Time Of The Season”, this wouldn't have been completely awful: our host can still fucking spit, and “Rhyme Or Reason” is a prime example of this. But then Em insists on singing the hook, and does so in the same fashion as The Zombies, which is embarrassing as shit, as are a good majority of his attempts at crooning. Our host still has no clue when to leave well enough alone. Eminem performs the three verses under three similar-sounding personas, and he even references “Criminal” on here, which now makes me believe that he had just finished listening to The Marshall Mathers LP before diving into the recording process for this album, so it was in the forefront of his mind. Sigh.
4. SO MUCH BETTER
Marshall exorcises his relationship demons over a sub-par self-production that at least sounds like it could appear on a true follow-up to the previous volume. (I'm sorry about all of the comparisons to The Marshall Mathers LP, but they became pretty much mandatory the moment Marshall announced the title of this album.) At least our host is focused on “So Much Better”: he isn't really hating all women, just the one that broke his heart. Apparently. However, even though Em reins it in on here, “So Much Better” isn't a must-hear track. I'm still waiting for something to grab me and make me give a shit.
The first song announced from The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but not the first single: that distinction went to “Berzerk” (which appears later), while the DJ Khalil-produced “Survival” was swept under the Call Of Duty: Ghosts rug as an “exclusive” but not really. (The actual exclusive, an Eminem cover of Black Moon's “I Gotcha Opin” called “Don't Front” that features Buckshot himself, sounds intriguing, but I didn't get a chance to listen to it before writing this review.) “Survival” is more rock-tinged than everything else on here thus far, but reminds me of the stuff he recorded for Relapse and Recovery, especially since our host's lyrics are generic platitudes while uncredited frequent Shady Records collaborator Liz Rodrigues delivers a hook that doesn't suck, but isn't really necessary, either. You two already know where I stand on Eminem: I prefer Slim Shady to his rehabilitated self. I don't want him to get hooked on drugs again (that would be an odd request for me to make), but I can do without the shouting of every. Fucking. Bar. Please?
A sort-of prequel to 8 Mile, allowing the listener a peek into why
Rabbit Marshall started writing rhymes in the first place. The
hook, performed by something called a Polina, is pure placeholder
(especially during the times she isn't even singing goddamn words)
and disrupts the flow, but Em's bars are pretty good, as he describes
in great detail how he found his salvation through our chosen genre,
where, within his lyrics, he could be the type of person who would
stand up to his bullies. Pretty deep stuff, actually, and Em's still
a good enough writer to make it all feel genuine. Emile's
instrumental is simple, but unobtrusive, as well. The only thing
that caught me off guard was his claim that he was signed to Rawkus
Records in 1999 (also the year The Slim Shady LP was released by
Aftermath). This helps make sense of his cameos on Soundbombing II
and on DJ Spinna tracks. Huh.
7. ASSHOLE (FEAT. SKYLAR GRAY)
Some of the bars were kind of amusing, but Skylar Grey will never be a thing, Em. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen.
The first single, which, as expected based on all of Eminem's lead-off singles, isn't very good, but also sounds nothing like the rest of the album, so. I appreciate that Marshall was trying to create an throwback-sounding joint that embraces the old school, even going so far as to recruit legendary producer Rick Rubin to produce, and that sample from Billy Squire's “The Stroke” is pretty prevalent: hell, the Beastie Boys (R.I.P. MCA) or Run DMC could have actually used this beat back in the mid-1980s. But Em's lyrics are all over the place, and the dated pop culture references are a travesty. (K-Fed? Really? Why not just dis Lance Bass and Monica Lewinsky while you're at it?) The hook is also awful, as each individual component seems to have been mastered at a different volume level, making for a disorienting listen, and, you know what, fuck it, this shit blows. It's not worse than “The Real Slim Shady”was, but it's still pretty corny. So, of course, this is a hit, because fuck Max, that's why.
9. RAP GOD
A lot of folks on the Interweb compare Marshall's lengthy bars on “Rap God” to Kendrick Lamar's scene-stealing performance on Big Sean's “Control”, but this is really more like Em's version of Lil' Wayne's “A Milli”: shit-talking, but with a lyrical focus. The DVLP beat was kind of dull to me, but Marshall works twice as hard to make this shit work, as he rhymes his fucking ass off (once again, he's always been able to spit: his creative direction is why he's lost me over the past few years). I appreciated his self-awareness, knowing that he isn't as big an artist as he once was (which is why he slips a particularly controversial line through uncensored, in direct contrast to when he tried to use the exact same line on The Marshall Mathers LP). This wasn't bad, but this isn't a real song: it's merely a long freestyle with a hook of sorts, and it should be treated as such. The replay value is low, is what I'm saying.
Ruins “Legacy” by talking about pretty much the exact same subject matter, except in a crass and unappealing fashion. Groan.
11. STRONGER THAN I WAS
Marshall's Drake song. You know what I'm talking about.
12. THE MONSTER (FEAT. RIHANNA)
Oh fuck, this is going to be a huge hit, isn't it? Frequency's beat and the fact that Rihanna belts out the chorus all but guarantees that people will like this shit. So let's talk about what I liked about “The Monster”: that instrumental wasn't bad for a poppy rap song. It definitely could have been worse, like Alex da Kid / Skylar Grey worse. And, obviously, Aftermath needs to actually sell copies of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, so of course they would push this as a possible single. However, while I didn't hate the song, I sure as fuck didn't care much for it, either: I'm not a fan of the radio-friendly (relatively speaking) Marshall, and he may as well have wrapped this track in silk and had it hand-delivered by courier to clubs nationwide. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to avoid this shit. It isn't as bad as a lot of other bloggers may have led you to believe, but trust me, you won't like it. (Side note: My favorite bit of “The Monster” trivia relates to underground weirdo Kool Keith, who gets name-dropped by our host. Keith has never heard the track (still hasn't, as far as I know), but when someone informed him on Twitter about the reference, he started promoting the shit out of it on his own feed. Marshall appears to be at least tangentially aware of Kool Keith's work, since he's a fan of old-school hip hop (and has undoubtedly bumped some Ultramagnetic M.C.'s in his lifetime) and even mentioned Dr. Octagon during his verse on former crew Tha Outsidaz' “Macosa”, for those of you who remember Tha Outsidaz and shit.)
13. SO FAR...
Alright, if you had to run with a Rick Rubin-produced track as the lead single, “So Far...” should have been at least up for consideration. Far better than “Berzerk”, “So Far...” explores Eminem's love/hate relationship with fame, using humor and honesty and managing to actually be funny and genuine, so even though the beat sounds like five random rap songs mashed together and Marshall's singing rivals Train's Pat Monahan in sheer annoyance, this still worked for me. And the fact that he isn't outright dissing fame and fortune is a plus, since there are already plenty of songs in our chosen genre that travel down that path in a golden Maybach: our host still thinks of himself as the same guy he was before he hit it big (which is so cute), and lives his life accordingly, which is quite refreshing, actually. Now that I think about it, Em hardly ever rhymes about material possessions unless he's trying to make a point. Huh. A nice late-album surprise.
14. LOVE GAME (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)
15. HEADLIGHTS (FEAT. NATE RUESS)
This Emile produc...wait, you want me to expand on “Love Game”? Okay, I guess. Just this once.
14. LOVE GAME (STILL FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)
I'm pretty sure that, the moment it was revealed that Aftermath labelmate K-Dot was the only guest rapper on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, nobody expected their collaboration to be a dumbass love rap that morphs into random bullshit throughout. This is what wasted potential sounds like in song form. Rick Rubin's beat liberally steals from Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders' “Game Of Love” (hence “Love Game”), which itself isn't bad, but this track just makes no goddamn sense. Em clearly has fun with his tongue-twister bars, and Kendrick is enjoying his moment, but none of this translates into an entertaining experience for the listener who was most definitely expecting more, even though, admittedly, the listener wasn't given any real reason to expect any more than this. Hell, this would have worked better had Em and K-Dot actually covered the Lady Gaga song of the same name: at least that would have had some novelty kitsch to it. Meh.
15. HEADLIGHTS (FEAT. ARIANA GRAN...NO, WAIT, STILL NATE RUESS)
This Emile production holds the highly-publicized “Eminem sort-of apologizes to his mother” verses. While it is pretty big of him to admit that his verbal attacks were spontaneous bursts of anger and that he does actually love her, I only wish the music itself was more compelling. fun.'s Nate Ruess croons the hook and such, and while he doesn't do a bad job (hey, I actually like a couple of fun. songs), he only makes “Headlights” sound even cheesier than it already is. Still, kudos to our host for his honesty and admitting he was wrong all this time. Also, if you'll notice, Marshall takes a lot of shots at his deadbeat dad throughout The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which is something I don't really remember him doing that much before now: maybe the entire album is an extended apology card.
16. EVIL TWIN
The final track of the regular program is a self-aware mess. The Sid Roams production is a bland exercise in futility, carried by Marshall's delivery and not so much his actual lyrics: Eminem is alert enough to pay attention to his craft (and make fun of the fact that he's relied so often on attacking fellow pop stars in his songs), and the bars reflect that. And then he sings. Again. Why, God, why? The concept of “Evil Twin” is weak, as well: just who is the twin supposed to be? Because all the verses sound like they were performed by the same guy, a rapper who switches cadences and flows all to keep himself entertained and engaged. I'm losing steam, so I'll just end this paragraph now.
And, of course, we're not done yet. The deluxe edition of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 comes with a whopping five additional songs (available on a bonus disc for those of you who still purchase actual CDs). So, on one hand, five bonus songs! But then you remember that there's probably a reason why these songs weren't included on the actual album, and then the panic tears start to well up..
Marshall's five-track encore (no pun intended) begins with the self-produced “Baby”, which has the gall to quote motherfucking Dirty Dancing during the hook. I only wish I were joking. Em's elastic flow rides the beat like a pro, but he he doesn't say anything, and that chorus is enough to make me skip to “Desperation”. Okay, I didn't actually skip it: I sat through all of this like the goddamn hero I am. But that doesn't mean you have to.
2. DESPERATION (FEAT. JAMIE N COMMONS)
The fuck was this shit? And are we sure that isn't the dude from fucking Nickelback performing the hook?
3. GROUNDHOG DAY
It's nearly impossible to read the phrase “Groundhog Day” and not think of the Bill Murray classic film (yeah, I said “classic”, and you know I'm right, we won't be debating that today). But the only thing that feels like it's repeating itself in an existential cycle is how Marshall uses his first two verses to tell the same fucking story already extrapolated upon with “Legacy” and “Brainless”: he just dives a bit deeper into his love of hip hop on here. Nobody's questioning the authenticity here, but the Cardiak / Frank Dukes instrumental plods instead of banging, and Marshall's energy isn't enough to distract the listener from being freaking exhausted as fuck at this point. This is an extraordinarily long-winded project, folks.
4. BEAUTIFUL PAIN (FEAT. SIA)
I'd like to think that Marshall called guest vocalist Sia directly after finally having caught up with all of Six Feet Under (her “Breathe Me” figures prominently into the finale), or maybe he's secretly a huge fan of early Zero 7 material, but in reality, this collaboration probably came about merely because Em's manager Paul Rosenberg thought it would be a good idea to work with the woman who sang on David Guetta's “Titanium”. While I actually like “Titanium” (it serves its purpose, and chicks dance to it at clubs, which is always fun), this is hardly a collaboration: Sia only sings the hook, and there's no proof that Marshall even knows that she ended up on the final version of “Beautiful Pain”. Also, this shit was booooooooring.
5. WICKED WAYS (FEAT. X AMBASSADORS)
This also failed to make any impact on me. Although I'm pretty sure a song just played, I have no real proof, and I don't feel like rewinding, because that would be a waste of my valuable time, unlike this overlong post, which is apparently nothing but worth my while. The only memorable aspect of “Wicked Ways” is also pretty fucking atrocious: the track, and the bonus disc, ends with a skit that resurrects the insufferable Ken Kaniff character, a homophobic release that Slim actually stole from former underground rapper / current underground Staples assistant manager Aristotle (who originated the persona on The Slim Shady LP back when the two were friendly). Which is one of my biggest takeaways from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 as a whole: Eminem tried so hard to replicate the feel of the first volume that he even went so far as to bring back all of the gay bashing. It's nearly 2014, dude, and you know how to write: if you're not homophobic, then fucking come up with a better goddamn insult. Otherwise, you're just lying to your audience, and you can't bullshit me: I actually listened to The Marshall Mathers LP, and you're not using the term "faggot" to mean "idiot". I don't buy your shit, Marshall. And now back to our program.
THE LAST WORD: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 left me in a curious position: in my history writing for the blog, I don't think I've ever come across a project where the lyricism present left me simultaneously intrigued and indifferent. Eminem is a terrifically technically-proficient rapper: he's going to go down in history as one of the top ten that ever did it, if not top five, and I mean that without irony. He knows what's he's doing, whether on drugs or not, and he's great at it. What worries me is his overall career direction: through Relapse and Recovery, Marshall seemed to be overly concerned with making sure people thought of him as an “artist” and not as a recovered shock-rapper prone to excellent punchlines and not much else. He's dug deeper into his psyche, and what he's come up with on here (his ongoing parental issues; his need for some sort of companionship, even if it's just with his kids, who, surprisingly, don't really factor into much on the project; his need to prove himself in the hyper-competitive world of hip hop) help make this his best album in a long while. Here's the caveat: while the lyrical content is impressive, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 isn't a fucking novel, and in order for this to work, the music has to be good, and that consistently failed both our host and myself. Em's narrow focus causes his contributors to all throw in similar-sounding beats that don't work (except for Rick Rubin, who tries to inject some energy, with mixed results, and by the way, where the fuck is Dr. Dre? Not that he would have helped: Dre beats in 2013 are pretty lacking. But I still expected to see him. Then again, he didn't produce any of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city, either), dragging down the entire project. This overlong (twenty tracks and an interlude – in a time where more and more rappers believe that less is more, this shit is for true believers only) quasi-sequel isn't horrible: it definitely has more of a reason to exist that either Relapse or Recovery, and our host sounds like he's at least enjoying himself again. But Eminem hasn't interested me as a rapper for quite a while now, so although I appreciate that he's still making an effort, this shit ultimately did nothing for me. I've officially outgrown Marshall Mathers, and I'm willing to bet that a lot of people who grew up with The Slim Shady LP or even Infinite have done the same. He'll always be one of the best rappers ever, but wake me up when Bad Meets Evil releases another album.
Leave some hate mail regarding my take on the rest of Marshall's catalog here.