What was it that made classic Eminem the cultural phenomenon that he was? What was it that made the Holy Trinity of ‘The Slim Shady LP,’ ‘The Marshall Mathers LP,’ and ‘The Eminem Show’ such great albums? Was it the anger? Nope, that’s still generally palpable both here and on his last 2 albums. Was it the production? No, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ has some pretty stellar production value, much better than his last 2 albums. Was it his predilection for controversy, his self-awareness, or his energy? That’s a bit closer. Was it his sense of humor? I think we have a winner. The contrast between genuinely funny songs like “Just Lose It” or “My Name Is” and newer songs like “Not Afraid” is pretty disappointing, and while the funnier side of Eminem has made something of a return here, it seems a little forced. Of course, there were serious songs in the golden era of his career, but what made songs like “Stan” so moving was the context of its release – it was a rare, vulnerable look at someone who was usually either spitting out uber-violent revenge fantasies or penning biting satire. And while Eminem is a lot more self-aware, the whole idea of naming this album after his huge breakthrough album draws incredibly strong parallels to Weezer’s attempt to recapture their magic on the Green Album – their self-titled debut was an artistic triumph, full of humor and heartbreak, while their also self-titled 2001 follow-up to ‘Pinkerton’ was a return to the poppier, geek-rock sound of their debut, but it sounded soulless, forced, and it was clear something magical was lost. Same issue here. It seems that after so long brushing off criticism, Eminem’s ego has finally been bruised by the haters who found his recent efforts a little flat.
The problem is that Eminem just doesn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for what he does. He no longer has something to prove, and he’s not young and cynical enough anymore to be able to stand back and laugh at the media circus that follows him. He’s old, he’s rich, he’s complacent, and frankly, he just doesn’t shock anymore. When he came out, his raw, over the top aggression was stunning to us, and we struggled to deal with the exposure. But after 14-odd years, we’ve gotten used to it, and he can’t bring the thrill anymore. When he insists “I’m stabbing myself/With a fucking knife in the gut, while I’m wiping my butt/Cause I just shitted on the mic, and I like getting cut,” we’re not so impressed by such hyperbolic declarations as we are reminded of a time when they would have impressed us. We’ve built up a tolerance to his psychopathic shenanigans, and while the ridiculously self-serious ‘Relapse’ and ‘Recovery’ have made such a return to form a very welcome relief, ultimately they’ll never be as memorable as “Hi kids, do you like violence?”
The variety and creative risks here are, admittedly, impressive. While the Zombies sample on “Rhyme or Reason” is bizarre at first, and the chorus is awkward and clunky, the result is ultimately pretty satisfying. Same goes for the Joe Walsh moment on “So Far….” Not all of them are hits, though. His monument to self-conscious self-aggrandizement on “Rap God” reaches for Kanye-esque heights, but falls short far short of “I Am A God,” feeling more like an attempt to reach deification than the affirmation of that status the Kanye so confidently proclaims. “Berzerk,” a Beastie Boys tribute, is nice, but honestly I don’t come to Eminem for nice. I come to Eminem to be provoked, challenged, and offended. I enjoyed listening to it, it’s a good song, all the necessary accolades for the lead single, etc. But I suspect that Slim Shady would be less than approving.
There are tracks that succeed of their own merit, as well; songs that escape the artist’s legacy and stand out as distinctively great new artistic leaps forward. There are also tracks that straight up fail. Let’s start with the latter. “Stronger Than I Was,” is, in a word, embarrassing. It would have fit perfectly on ‘Relapse,’ which is a shame. It’s a pop-friendly ballad that doesn’t even begin to feel sentimental, and considering that it follows the relatively strong “Brainless,” and is followed by the blatantly crowd-pleasing pap of “The Monster,” it makes it a whole lot more unpleasant. But there are a lot of good moments that allow this album to approach levels of greatness somewhere close to what he did 10 years ago. Opening track “Bad Guy” sounds like a pretty good distillation of Eminem’s whole career so far, and looks into the future, which, all things considered, doesn’t look all that bad by the end of it. Standout track “Love Game” is incredible, and if all other redeeming qualities on this album were stripped away, this track alone could probably save it from being as bad as the last 5 years. Eminem’s assessment of the hip-hop game, the neurotic self-deprecation, and a flow that surpasses anything preceeding, as well as Kendrick Lamaar’s contributions, make this the absolute best track on the album. It’s funny, it’s shocking, it’s musically impressive, and it’s sure to go down as one of Eminem’s very best.
For all its faults, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ is a genuinely good album. It’s a bit of a letdown, considering I grew up with Eminem albums that were more great than good, but that shouldn’t deter you from getting it, playing it for months on end, and relive some good times from when Slim Shady introduced you to the darker side of life that we all try to hide by exposing it for everyone on TRL to see (and it shouldn’t stop you from throwing out ‘Relapse’ and Recovery.’ Seriously, why do you still have those? It’s ok to admit Eminem makes mistakes, but he gave us this album, so let’s just forget those two ever happened, agreed?).
Recommended Tracks: Bad Guy, Berzerk, Rap God, Love Game