opinion by MATTHEW M.F. MILLER
When young Eminem rapped angry, be it in the character of Slim Shady or Marshall Mathers, it was intimidating – even scary at times. Rapid, twisted word bullets were his calling card, and at his most unhinged it felt like he was capable of climbing through your stereo speakers and ripping out your throat with the same demented rage he directed at his ex wife, overinflated pop culture icons and, occasionally, himself. Back in 2000, listening to The Marshall Mathers LP was equal parts thrill and unease, a horror movie of a rap album whose brand of cartoonish, literate violence struck the frayed nerves of millions. Sure, we were all much younger then, so maybe the fear was just feeding off of a generation’s theretofore untapped angst, but the Eminem of 2000 was different than the 2013 version because his stories weren’t just angry – they were honestly, bone-chillingly angry.
With The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a sequel 13 years removed from the original landmark album, Eminem’s vitriol is the music equivalent of getting yelled at by your parents. It’s a non-threatening, uneven effort that feels stuck in a past where Limp Bizkit was the enemy of good taste and Monica Lewinsky’s oral prowess made for an edgy punchline. On the plus side, it’s not a pandering rehash nor is it a shrewd cash-grab banking on past glories just to sell a few extra hundred thousand copies – Eminem is too savvy and too talented for that nonsense. MMLP2 is more of an anxious return to a broken home, with Eminem revisiting the same topics he covered years ago through the eyes of a wiser, grizzled, 41-year old dad. Sadly, it’s just not very good.
MMLP2 leads off with an aggressive bang in the form of “Bad Guy”, a 7-minute sprawling sequel to “Stan” that begins in the voice of Matthew Mitchell, the revenge-seeking little brother of Stan. After Matthew chops up the old Eminem – literally – the narrative focus shifts, allowing the new Eminem several minutes of pshychotic self-reflection. “I represent everything you take for granted … Matthew and Stan’s just symbolic of you not knowing what you had until it’s gone.” Lyrically it’s perfect, a “Lose Yourself” style thriller, and it’s one of the few songs that live up to the astronomical Shady standards.
Eminem’s vocals sound tired and listless, which is part purposeful and part age, and as the weariness threads throughout much of the album it reduces the pleasures, making even the most fun songs, like “The Monster”, the final chapter of his Rihanna triology, and the Kendrick Lamar guest track “Love Game” sound less like party starters and more like last call.
The album’s two best tracks stand tall in the middle, most notably because they rely on uncluttered beats, simple song construction and Eminem’s most effective social critiques. On “Berzerk”, a Rick Rubin produced homage to the Beastie Boys, Eminem challenges his fellow rappers to go back to their roots (“Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop and start from scratch”). “Rap God” manages to be homophobic while slandering the very idea of homophobia. It’s the song most likely to stand beside his best work because it’s controversial for a reason – Eminem isn’t being awful, his characters are, which allows him to explore human nature in ways rappers before him never dreamed. The fact that he still has to explain that, which he does in great detail here, provides a rare moment of bliss.
After that, however, it’s downhill fast. “Brainless” is too childish to be fun because it never finds an insightful reason for existing. “Stronger Than I Was” is the kind of slow-jam that Eminem has become infatuated with of late, and his awkward singing and the cheesy lyrics undermine a steady groove. The lowest of the low has to be “So Far …” – an embarrassing blend of Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker that aims for the white trash rafters and wholly succeeds. It features a self-sample of “The Real Slim Shady”, which probably felt like a clever idea, but when the most exciting musical moment on your new album stems from nostalgia, it only serves to remind listeners exactly how much better the first Marshall Mathers LP was than its sequel.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 struggles mightily with finding a voice, which is shocking given how many voices to which Eminem has given life. All of his pioneering antics are still present, but few of them showed up in tip-top form. As an artist revisiting a previous masterwork, he’s chosen to add maturity in all the wrong spots. Lowbrow nods interspersed with pointed criticisms of nearly everyone of note made Eminem a star, but most of the references and insults here feel dated. It’s about as timely as catching up on last year’s episodes of TMZ on your DVR. [C+]