[5 November 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Magna Carta, holy Yeezus Christ. Em’s still got it.
In a year cluttered with high-profile hip-hop releases, The Marshall Mathers LP2 is undeniably the best of the best and it’s not close. Wildly entertaining, gruesomely hilarious and surprisingly poignant, the set is worth its namesake, the same record, lest we be reminded, that sold 1.76 million copies during its first week of release in 2000, on its way to earning the title as fastest-selling hip-hop record ever. Thirteen years later, and if the world wasn’t so bogged down by apathy and ego, who’s to say this thing wouldn’t surpass it? Based on performance alone, MMLP2 would at least have a shot.
It’s been a fascinating question, wondering how Eminem would age. Part of his appeal has been a subconscious consistently wise beyond both his and his listeners’ years. All the immature jokes or disgusting skits or graphic intentions have been by design, remember. Yeah, it might take a royally fucked up mind to come up with the things he says anyway, but it takes a truly brilliant one to somehow parlay that into mainstream success. From the second he first asked everybody if they liked Primus 14 years ago, his shock-value shtick always felt like it had an expiration date.
The Marshall Mathers LP2, if nothing else, proves that it doesn’t. He just turned 41, don’t forget. Photos of his once-baby Hailie have made the rounds online seemingly for no other reason than to remind us all of how old we are. Before children became the new gold chain in hip-hop, Eminem was trying to figure out how to raise a little girl while somehow getting a do-or-die music career off the ground. Sure, his most revered peers might share his years in number, but they can’t even begin to touch his growth. Mathers doesn’t need to purchase a Picasso to announce his arrival as an adult; he’s been on that side of life for years.
And that’s what makes this set so … interesting. Lead track “Bad Guy” recalls Marshall Mathers’ “Stan” with a little less Dido and a lot more layers. Rather than lean on the singular crazed-fan story that made his 2000 single such a smash, here he follows up the actions of Stan’s baby bro (who, coincidentally also has the initials M.M., Matthew Mitchell) with an afterward tirade that gives the song two extra minutes of pure reflection. Fading into silence as he continues to rap (a subtly provocative move in its own right), the song ends up being the most revealing and intelligent way to begin such a breathtaking ride through what it’s like for Detroit’s best MC to officially be over the hill.
Yet where other big name artists tend to struggle while trying to find their footing in transition aided by age, Eminem embraces and subsequently thrives off that inevitable maturity. Need proof? Check the constant nods to the yesteryear that pop up with more intensity than a Calvin Johnson highlight reel. Single “Berzerk” is such a finely tuned throwback, you begin to wish your iPod had two speakers and a cassette player. Borrowing heavily from the Beastie Boys and some of the oldest schools any rap enthusiast could find, the song is chalked full of buried wit as Marshall eventually asks “are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid?” Never before has idiocy sounded so enlightening.
Speaking of enlightenment, “Headlights” gives us quite possibly the most touching moment Em has ever put on wax. One theme that runs rampant through the album as a whole is his revelatory decision to place blame on his father for his messed up childhood and not, as many have heard for years now, his mother. That notion climaxes here as the rapper goes into full-on Sorry Mode, admitting that he can’t even listen to his 2002 hit “Cleaning Out My Closet” anymore because of the anger he once expressed toward moms. Fun.‘s Nate Ruess shows up for the hook and while on paper it might sound like a cheap turnaround on a once-fervent opinion, the song works as it walks the flimsy line between compassion and anger. In a way, it sums up why we still care so much about Eminem: He’s always had the ability to be shockingly self-aware, and whenever he decides to touch on it, his brand is a little more potent, a little more reverential than the average artist’s. The move isn’t just an apology to his mom; it’s an indictment on his past.
Still, a lot of that past was spent mastering a craft, and MMLP2 solidifies his place among the best ever from a technical standpoint. “Rap God” is a jaw-dropping roller coaster through a display of white-hot flow and Usain Bolt-like speed that should shut up skeptics quicker than it takes him to offer one of his ridiculously snappy verses. “So Far…” is downright funny as he explains what it’s like trying to interact with fans and as a bonus, it even gives listeners a reggae refrain that book-ends the thing, making the case for Marshall as a pop-reggae singer ready to back up a band like Mest. “Rhyme Or Reason” samples the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and is close to genius. Dripping with confrontation, the rapper goes from Eminem to Chewbacca and back without blinking an eye all the while laying everything on top of such an iconic soul song, which only sweetens an already rich pot. “As long as I’m on the clock/punching this time card/Hip-hop ain’t dying on my watch,” he says and you can’t doubt him.
The only real problem with that is the fact that there’s a lot of retirement talk running as an undercurrent through the duration of the record. Sure, we’ve heard it all before, from, oh, say, every other notable rapper alive, of course, but the subliminal suggestions and intricate inferences are enough to make any fan pause for a moment to appreciate what exactly The Marshall Mathers LP2 is by realizing what it’s not: A re-lapse or a re-covery. More than anything it’s a re-minder that his is one of the most important, invigorating and invaluable voices all of popular music (let alone hip-hop) has today. It’s wicked and it’s intense and it’s inappropriate and it’s unique and it’s brilliant and it’s essential.
And more importantly, as this set proves, it’s also as sharp as ever.
“Why be a king when you can be a god,” Eminem asks with a final shout on “Rap God”. You tell us, father of Yeezus.