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Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2′ – Album Review

Jeff Kravitz, Getty Images

You can’t overstate Eminem’s star power. Go anywhere in the world and ask people who their favorite rapper is, and they’ll likely name the white guy that rapped about the “vomit on his sweater already.”

He doesn’t touch a stage for less than $1,000,000. He barely even leaves his Detroit fortress unless it’s to go out West and visit Dre. He doesn’t want to tour, he doesn’t want to do interviews, and sometimes it seems like he doesn’t even want to rap anymore. But he will. Call it passion, or greed, or just a need to prove himself, but Eminem is trying harder than ever on ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2′ to prove… what exactly?

When we last left Eminem, he had just released an egregious sellout of an album with ‘Recovery.’ Yes, the subject matter was cathartic and personal and all about recovering from drug addiction. Whoopdie doo. The music was bathed in such nauseating pop poison that when the tracklist first leaked – showing features from Pink, Rihanna, Kobe, and Lil’ Wayne – people immediately laughed it off as fake. If only that had been true.

Now he’s back with ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2,’ an album that’s not so much a sequel as an revisitation to the “vibe and nostalgia” contained in “older breakbeats and sounds”, as he told Rolling Stone. The trainwreck of singles (‘Berzerk’, ‘Survival’, and ‘Rap God’) that followed the initial commercial (which took a page from Hova’s playbook) polarized audiences and upped anticipation for the album. Yet while previous albums always had some orbiting controversy or personal story to tell (addiction, murder dealing with fame), ‘TMMLP 2′ comes just as Eminem has been doing…not much at all besides being a family man.

Marshall Mathers LP 2
Interscope

With Rick Rubin doing more than just sleeping on the couch this time around, ‘TMMLP 2′ does have distinct rock shadings – the swinging ‘Rhyme or Reason’ finds Em confronting his runaway father over a classic Zombies sample, while the hokey ‘Love Game’ lifts a melody from Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. Having brought Rubin in about one-third of the way through completing the project, Em takes advantage of bare bones beats like ‘Brainless’ while flexing his creativity on ‘So Far…’ which includes a recognizable Joe Walsh loop. He isn’t posturing on these tracks – Em is just being his weird old self, speaking on his hated dad, his backfired attempts at relationships, and his resistance to new technology. It’s the brutally unapologetic artist that we’ve all come to love, updated for sobriety, family life, and pop culture in 2013. It’s like seeing a crazy old friend get healthy again.

But Eminem just can’t stay away from throwing rocks at “fags,” “bitches,” and Backstreet Boys, even as he tries to emulate one later on. As scientific as he’s gotten with his rhyme schemes, there are still plenty of punchlines so groan worthy that they recall Lil’ Wayne at his corniest – the ‘peeked/potential’ line on ‘Bad Guy’, the Gwen Stefani/No Doubt joke on “Asshole” (which is full of cringe-inducing moments), the “I’m only driving drunk ‘cause that bitch drove me to drink’ line on ‘So Much Better’. At least ‘Encore’ and ‘Relapse’ had Dre beats and drugs (plus some genuine humor). It seems that the price to pay for a sober Marshall is tolerating the overbearing fusion of rap and pop that he boasts about mastering on ‘Rap God’. ‘The Real Slim Shady’ emanated genuine dopeness from it’s opening chords; ‘Monster’ sounds desperate to capture that elusive balance between hardcore and radio, especially when a team of songwriters is involved.

There’s something intangible about Eminem’s mic presence that isn’t there anymore. He’s still a master craftsmen with word placement, but it takes more than just putting puzzle pieces in the right places to be a commanding MC. Listen to old verses of his – Obie Trice’s ‘Lady’, Thirstin Howl’s ‘Watch Deez’, Madd Rapper’s ‘Stir Crazy’ – and they all have that indescribable quality, that unimaginable insanity that seethes beneath the surface and informs every sick, twisted detail about the life of a loner. Flows shift, bounce, and fluctuate, but on ‘The Marshall Mathers 2′, he spits like he’s trying to level the few remaining buildings in Detroit, vomiting words until they’re nearly indecipherable, but often the songs beneath them aren’t enjoyable enough to warrant closer listening.

‘The Marshall Mathers 2′ is almost like it’s own Eminem museum – to your right, he explains his ‘Legacy’ by offering us straightforward answers about how he’s a “fire Marshall” (really), straight ahead we have ‘Berzerk,’ where Em channels the Beastie Boys in an attempt to revive Old School Hip-Hop and ends up sounding empty, stale, staged, and hollow, and over here you’ll find ‘Stronger Than I Was’, a look at the conflicted male psyche that’s undergone years of projected misogyny and now wants to make songs for hospital commercials.

On the opening track ‘Bad Guy’, Marshall Mathers and Slim Shady face off against one another, and Slim gets the short end of the stick, winding up in Marshall’s trunk. It’s a metaphorical death and rebirth, an end to the Slim Shady era and a return of the character from the original ‘The Marshall Mathers LP.’ But this guy doesn’t sound familiar either. ‘Eminem Show’ was his most personal record, ‘Recovery’ was his poppiest record, and ‘Relapse’ was the technically flawless album, sacrificing songwriting for lyrical trapeze tricks. Every iteration of his persona has always sounded genuine on wax, but on ‘TMMLP 2′ it all sounds staged. On ‘Bad Twin’, he dives into the differences between his own characters, only to equate them all (“they’re all the same, bitch”) and summarize his own current feelings: “I’m so sick of being the truth.” The obvious highlight of the album is ‘Headlights’, which echoes previous tracks like ‘Déjà Vu’ and “Beautiful” in it’s unflinching sobriety and clear-headed realization. It finds Eminem actually forgiving the mother that he’s so publicly used as a scapegoat for his now-manifest problems. He does the unthinkable: he exposes his true nature. He peels away the tough guy exterior to reveal the sensitive, self-conscious son that’s underneath all the burdensome performative aspects of being hip-hop’s biggest star. It’s the kind of song that one might want to end a career with.

‘TMMLP 2′ leaves a couple strange tastes in your mouth: Where’s the good Doc? The world’s first introduction to this album was a commercial slapped with “Executive Producers: Dr. Dre & Rick Rubin”, but just like the trick that Jay pulled with Rubin appearing in promo videos for ‘Magna Carta’, Dre must have been outside of this album’s marketing budget, because there isn’t a single beat done by him. Speaking of missing producers, how come Alchemist and Eminem have only linked for one officially released song? They have the same managers [Paul Rosenberg/Goliath Management], for Christ’s sake. Hasn’t Paul seen his artist destroy an ALC beat before? It seems that for Em pop singles are just too hard to do without. Even the 6-minute spitting extravaganza ‘Rap God’ needed a pseudo-EDM beat, but all’s well that ends well – as of today, Em has four of the ten top singles in iTunes. Hooray for chart success.

We all know that Eminem would do numbers if he rapped “gaga googoo” for 60 minutes. The truth is that the album would be a lot more acceptable as is if it sounded like music that Marshall genuinely wanted to make. Instead, his Rolling Stone interview offers some insight into how the giant machine behind him has started making chess moves for him. That confusing appearance on ESPN? The unfortunate pairing with Call of Duty? That ridiculous online game with missions that consist of sharing links to Eminem’s music on social media? No, not forced at all.

It used to be that Eminem’s music generated it’s own marketing – marital issues, gun problems, court dates, constant disses – that stemmed from the genre-shifting music itself. Now the buzz has nothing to do with the music, and that’s part of the problem. Em is at the point in his career where too many people count on him to deliver. He needs his ‘Monster,’ he must have his grating Skylar Grey, and as different as ‘TMMLP 2′ is from his last album, it’s still shooting for that gigantic success rate, sales wise.

Mathers has said that he will no longer answer questions about his daughter and mother in interviews because everything that needs to be known was said in ‘Headlights.’ It’s shockingly refreshing to hear an artist tell the media – who often exploit his – that all they need to know is in the music, not the marketing. Remember that when you listen to the album. Close your eyes, go for a walk, feel the harsh frigid air slipping into any allowance that your winter clothes permit. Remember that the frosty Marshall is still here to soundtrack your evil deeds. He’s retained his ability to pen great choruses and bridges, and his writing is sharp as a tack, but where does the music begin to suffer from the crippling technicality? Will we ever get more in-depth, personal tales like ‘Headlights,’ or will Eminem’s imagination continue to present multiple personalities to the audience? It feels like the real Marshall Mathers doesn’t have much left to say.

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