Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (take two)

[21 November 2013]

By Logan Smithson

Fans plead with Eminem year after year to return to his prime form. While his albums still sell and his singles still top the charts, his hardcore fans recognize that this isn’t the same rapper that they grew up on. Not since the release of The Eminem Show back in 2002 has an Eminem album truly satisfied in the public eye. While Eminem gives the impression that he’s all but entirely disconnected from society, he seems all too cognizant of his constant criticisms.

By creating a sequel to his most popular album ever, Eminem opens the door for disaster. Thirteen years removed from his genre-transcending classic, Marshall digs up an old grave in hopes of recapturing some of that mystique. Now, given that the past decade of Eminem releases bear no resemblance to the sound of the original Marshall Mathers LP, fans had good reason to fear that Eminem would tarnish the legacy of the original with an unwarranted sequel.

Eminem foresees this criticism and brings up the question himself on the album’s opener. “I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people that die / And hey, here’s a sequel to my Mathers LP / Just to try to get people to buy / How’s this for publicity stunt? This should be fun.” Leave it to Eminem to completely defy expectations. The opening track, “Bad Guy”, is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of storytelling in hip-hop in quite some time. I’d love to go more in depth, but at the risk of ruining the surprise for those who haven’t yet heard it, I’ll just leave it at that. While it’s a phenomenal track in any regard, full appreciation requires you to have been an Eminem fan at some point in your life, which is the overlying tale of The Marshall Mathers LP 2.

The singles leading up to The Marshall Mathers LP 2 gave out all the wrong signals. The worst fears were seemingly confirmed before our eyes, as single after single hinted that Eminem’s upcoming album would sound more like a sequel to Recovery rather than a follow-up to The Marshall Mathers LP as it was being advertised. “Survival” is another generic, uplifting stadium anthem that sounds like a Recovery leftover. “The Monster” does everything right to guarantee enough success on the pop charts to rival Eminem’s last collaboration with Rihanna, but it does everything wrong for those not wanting another formulaic pop song from the Detroit rapper. The singles gave the impression that MMLP2 would be full of the same pandering that plagued Eminem’s last solo effort to the point of not even sounding like an Eminem album.

Thankfully, the singles end up being the album’s low points. “Survival” and “The Monster” in particular stick out like a miniskirt in a monastery in the way that “The Real Slim Shady” and “Bitch Please II” did on part 1, except those were at least good songs when isolated. The Rick Rubin-produced “Berzerk” pays homage to old-school rap of the ‘80s while at the same time serving as the album’s quirky single. “Rap God” doesn’t particularly fit the bill, either. However, overlooking this lyrical miracle display’s positioning is easy when you stop and admire how impressive the rapping itself is. There aren’t many rappers, if any, who could systematize words in this particular way while seamlessly alternating flows at any given moment. 

What keeps Eminem relevant after all these years is that he is willing to take chances. When “Love Game” was spotted on the tracklist, we all assumed that it would be a back-and-forth lyrical competition between Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. While that is actually the exact result we hoped for, the two ventured outside the box and came up with something completely different, showcasing a side of the two rappers we really haven’t seen before. Eminem also isn’t afraid to take chances when it comes to singing his own hooks. It’s no secret that Eminem doesn’t have the most appealing vocal chords, but there’s something about it that adds another layer of depth to his music. The passion is always there with Em, and it makes his songs feel that much more personal. That’s what makes it disappointing when he decides to get a generic female vocalist time and time again to churn out an uninspired hook, which The Marshall Mathers LP 2 has just a few too many of.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 may not be a true sequel to the first, sonically. However, in concept the title is clearly fitting. Em revisits themes and ideas, recalls lines, rediscovers emotions, and even continues a skit from the first. The recollections of the old Slim Shady take advantage of nostalgia, but it works. Some parts of the album are pure fan service and it’s hard to complain that there’s too much of it. It’s just so satisfying to hear simple touches like “six minutes Slim Shady you’re on” to Eminem going to Burger King and having someone spit in his onion rings. There are countless references to old Eminem material, including subtle allusions within the lyrics and flat out re-visitations to past subjects, such as “Brainless” being an obvious successor to “Brain Damage”.

The most evident connection to the first Mathers LP is the personal nature of it. Eminem has never been one to separate his personal life from his music, a trait that has helped him gain such a strong connection to his fanbase. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 doesn’t skimp out on giving you insight into Eminem’s conscience. In fact, it holds some of his most personal recordings to date. Em still touches on his troublesome childhood, rampant with stories of being bullied. Yes, he still hints at having strong emotions towards Kim, even if she’s never mentioned by name. The album is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest shock is delivered on “Headlights”. After a career of placing blame on his mother, Eminem issues an emotional apology to Debbie, understanding that they may never have a steady relationship but at the same time he realizes it’s time to forgive her.

What makes The Marshall Mathers LP 2 stand out among the other releases of the year is not that it’s a profoundly excellent piece of musical work. Take an album like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for example. It draws high praise due to its near flawless composition. The attention to detail in every note makes it pure ear candy. Eminem, on the other hand, has never been known for making the kind of music suitable for playing in the background. You didn’t listen to his old albums to relax and soothe your mind. The draw to Eminem has always been his astonishing wordplay mixed with the personality and passion that he puts in his raps. The fine tuning isn’t always apparent in the production, but the lyrical side is where Em’s obsessive nature reveals itself.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is an album that only Eminem could’ve made. When aware of his turbulent backstory, the songs on this album pack much more of a punch. Eminem has had one of the most interesting career arcs of any modern artist. Watching everything unfold over the last 16 years is what has allowed fans to develop such an attachment to Eminem as an artist. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is a sign of his maturity and where he’s at during this point of his career. Eminem may not be the same comedic, quick-witted, pop culture commentator with a chip on his shoulder. He has some fun at the expense of Asher Roth, Khloe Kardashian, and Tori Spelling to name a few, but for the most part the shots at pop culture icons are done. Although he shows some flashes of his old self on the sequel, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 shows that he isn’t the same rapper and you shouldn’t expect him to be.

The release of a new Eminem album is always a big event in music that’s sure to generate discussion for weeks and possibly even months. What’s going to keep The Marshall Mathers LP 2 in debate circles well into 2014 is that there is so much to dissect. The 15 album cuts are unapologetically long, with many songs dancing around the 5-minute mark and all following a structured three verse format. If this didn’t amount to enough material, the deluxe edition contains enough content to have filled a double album. There are very few duds among the 22 total tracks. Some of the best songs actually ended up on the bonus disc, making the deluxe edition well worth it. Even if you’re not satisfied with the original album, you can have fun restructuring the album to your liking, inserting bonus tracks in the place of your least favorite songs.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 doesn’t have the same raw hip-hop energy that his first albums with the Bass Brothers contained. Maybe that’s why “Don’t Front” (the Call of Duty pre-order bonus, no less) feels so right and ends up being one of the absolute best songs to come out of The Marshall Mathers LP 2. There are still some poppy moments lingering in the production and in the hooks, especially. Eminem still can’t help but deliver a corny punchline here and there. However, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 ends up being better than it had any right to be.

A month ago, no one would’ve thought it was possible for Eminem to still rap at this level and even sound like the old him. The hope was that Eminem would relax a little bit and find his old voice. In dying his hair back, Eminem not only was able to recapture sparks of his old sound, but he also regained his passion for the music. Eminem sounds like he’s having fun rapping again, something that has been absent from his music lately. If people are still mad at Eminem after this album, it’s proof that he can’t win. This is quite possibly the best album you could get from the 41-year-old Eminem. Not only is his rapping on point, but the autobiographical tone allows this album to evoke an emotional response from the listener like few albums are able to accomplish. Eminem might not be making “shock rap with Doc” like he used to be, but The Marshall Mathers LP 2 takes turns as equally bold and unpredictable as anything in his discography.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176302-eminem-the-marshall-mathers-lp-2-take-two/