The sequel to Eminem’s best album falls way short of its predecessor, but it’s a step in the right direction.
There’s a moment about eight and a half minutes into Eminem’s newest comeback album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, when I’m convinced that Eminem has absolutely no idea why he’s considered one of the best rappers of all time. During the first verse of “Rhyme Or Reason”—which interpolates The Zombies’ 1968 hit “Time Of The Season” into a complete psychotic breakdown of a song—Mr. Mathers has slipped into a pitch-perfect Yoda accent, rapping in double time while somehow adopting the character’s complex syntax (“But waned for the game your enthusiasm it hasn’t”) and incorporating enough internal rhymes to send Earl Sweatshirt running for a thesaurus. It’s as long-winded and reference-heavy as that sentence makes it sound, and it stands as one of the most technically impressive things I’ve heard in rap all year.
Of course, it’s also ridiculous. After one listen, I never wanted to hear it again.
There’s a lot of astounding noise made on this album, a bloating glut of punchline rap that holds up better when held at a distance. Each song sprints from line to line, with references and wordplay spitting faster than the fiends over at RapGenius can annotate them. Yet for all the technical ability on display here, not much resonates. It seems that in Marshall’s fury to prove that he can still wield a pen, he may have forgotten how to write a song. Rather than a true comeback album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is yet another step towards where Eminem should be in his 40s: respected for his rap skills, but unable to contribute anything relevant to pop culture.
It’s a step in the right direction, and there are definite improvements over 2010’s triumphant yet forgettable Recovery. Em has more control over his voice than ever before, freeing himself of the full-throated yell that’s approximated passion on every Eminem verse since “Forever” came out. It’s exciting to hear the rap god slink between different personas and moods again, and it goes a long way towards making the 79-plus minutes of self-described “rappity rap” less exhausting. However, once the spectacle of watching Em regain control of his voice and his flow wears off, there’s not a lot to keep these songs in rotation. The beat selection here is haphazard at best, with an over-reliance on “dad rock” samples that fits squarely within executive producer Rick Rubin’s wheelhouse but neuters Eminem’s distinctive sound. (“Love Game” is the welcome exemption to this statement, an out-of-the-box jaunt with Kendrick Lamar that flips a 1965 recording of Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders.) For the first time in a while, Em’s wordplay is as astonishing as fireworks, but too often humdrum bass and drums fail to propel MMLP2‘s songs to their appropriate heights.
It’s even worse when you couple that with the ever-increasing sensation that, for all of his clever puns and triple entendres, Eminem has almost nothing new to say. As tempting as it can be to get lost in the flash of lyricism, he has already written better versions of all these songs. His newest moody duet with Rihanna, “The Monster”, aims for the same territory as “The Way I Am”. “Survival” and “Legacy” strive for the rallying anthem, but can’t come close to touching songs like “Till I Collapse” or “Sing For The Moment” or even “Not Afraid”. Album opener “Bad Guy” is a beautifully schizoid mess in the classic Slim Shady sense, but it’s also a direct sequel to his genre-defining classic “Stan”. As such, it comes off as a completely unnecessary addition to the song’s legacy, a sensation that arises again and again throughout MMLP2.
It must be a difficult balance to strike, and I feel for him—no one wants to listen to a 41-year-old man bitterly lash out at the same targets he’s been yelling about since his late 20s. Yet the album’s most mature step forward, “Headlights”, offers a detailed apology to Em’s long-suffering mother (backed with a soaring chorus from Nate Ruess) and it’s easily the most boring song on the album. Puns aside, there’s simply not a lot of fun to these songs, and it remains to be seen if that angry, adolescent fire that captivated so many people 12 years ago can ever be fully rekindled.
Favorite Tracks: “Love Game”, “Evil Twin”, “Bad Guy”, “Baby (Bonus Track)”
P.S. Even without a strong single pushing it (“Berzerk” goes on a really interesting lyrical journey through rap history, but it’s not exactly a pop smash), I expect this album to sell close to a million copies in its first week, simply off the strength of Eminem’s name. It’s sad that an artist who clearly has a strong grip on our national attention can’t bring himself to push his music forward.
P.P.S. I don’t really want to get entrenched in the homophobia and misogyny debate. It seems like a guy in his 40s should be able to come up with a new way to turn heads, because after 7 albums it’s not shocking anymore.