Only Eminem knows exactly what kind of feeling he sought to stir up amongst the hip-hop community by billing his latest release as the sequel to his critically acclaimed, culturally revered sophomore major-label album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’. Thirteen aching years and four solo albums have come and gone since his halcyon hockey-mask-and-chainsaw days, and the news was met by most with a cartoonishly apprehensive tug on the collar and an exaggerated gulp.
But Eminem is by no means an aged Evel Knievel wheeling his bike up to a ramp, deluded that he can still make the leap over the pit of starving tigers, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 proves that point. Listeners will be hard-pushed to argue that Eminem’s eighth studio album even so much as approaches its namesake, an album which cemented Eminem’s status as a statuesque figure in the world of modern rap music. However, Em’s latest effort is one that pulsates with potential, and will be looked upon as another muscular limb on Slim’s stellar body of work.
The absence of all of Eminem’s former favourite feature artists on MMLP2 is symptomatic of his ever-developing style. Gone are the days of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and Obie Trice adding their bustling belligerence to Eminem’s aggression. They’ve been replaced by the likes of vocalists Skylar Grey, Sarah Jaffe and Nate Ruess, lead singer of bombastic pop-punk act ‘Fun.’.
Penultimate song and obligatory Mom-track ‘Headlights’ is exemplary of the effect this change has had. Eminem sacrifices both the hook and a verse to Ruess, allowing the singer to punctuate Em’s deeply personal letter to his much-maligned mother with melodies so sweet that they border on saccharine. The result is a song of emotional depth and lyrical maturity somewhat blunted by a generic piano loop that doesn’t sound an awful lot unlike anything else on the radio.
The songs on MMLP2 that do exhibit Eminem’s willingness to try something different variegate wildly in terms of both content and quality. The album opens with ‘Bad Guy’, a seven-minute barnstorming story that features Stan’s younger brother Matthew as its unravelling protagonist, a man out to avenge his brother’s fate. The song is masterfully layered, the set up flowing nicely into the reveal – but when it comes to Eminem’s performance, there’s no denying that the most exciting moment is when he slips into his old, 2000-era Em Stan voice and delivers the haunting line “It’s just me, you and the music now, Slim – I hope you hear it”. It’s an exciting concept delivered expertly.
After a brief skit, however, the listener is treated to the wince-worthy ‘Rhyme or Reason’, Eminem’s experimental rendition of The Zombie’s ‘Time of The Season’. Eminem’s genre-bending rap over the laid-back beat is uncomfortable enough before the rapper sings the chorus himself and brings the whole affair to a cringe climax. ‘Stronger Than I Was’ sees the emcee aping Good Charlotte’s early material for a solid two and a half minutes before he sets about any rapping at all.
Luckily, these lead balloons are the exception. While Eminem might never recapture the same seamless flow or mystifyingly magnificent rhyme schemes heard on ‘Kill You’, there are several songs on MMLP2 that showcase the 41-year-old’s talent. ‘Survivor’ and ‘Rap God’ are flawed, lyrically speaking (‘They say I rap like a robot so call me Rapbot’, anyone?) but also offer themselves as perfect examples of Eminem’s unending ability to get on a mic and savage a beat. Beasties Boys-inspired lead single ‘Berzerk’ contains all the power you’d expect from a song produced by Rick Rubin, and its enough of a club banger that the extremely dated reference to Kevin Federline, of all people, is easily ignored. Awkward wordplay is something that deeply permeates Eminem’s new style, and its something the listener has to learn to live with in order to enjoy the man’s technical gift.
The true highlights come in the form of MMLP2’s more understated tracks. ‘Brainless’ is a no-frills bulldozer of a tune. Even those most frustrated with the way Eminem’s career has panned out in recent years couldn’t resist a head-bob. Lyrically, the song is a refreshingly original take on the brag rap, essentially documenting Eminem’s journey from the fucked-up kid from ‘Brain Damage’ to now. ‘Asshole’ is a thousand-fist barrage, with Em’s frantic flow suiting the song to a tee, and can boast perhaps Eminem’s best use of the double entendre to date, twisting syllables brilliantly when he spits ‘Gotta go in that ring and knock them out or you better not come out’.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is less of a sequel to the original than it is an expansion pack. Its track-list is neither a continuation nor a response to the classics Eminem conjured back in 2000, though it does give a home to enough strong songs to make any hopeful fan more optimistic of another truly great Em album in our lifetime. For those of the opposite opinion, the worry persists. On ‘Rap God’, Eminem taunts fledging rappers who have tried to mimic the success of songs such as ‘Lose Yourself’ – “I don’t know how to make songs like that, I don’t know what words to use”, he mocks, impersonating the imitators. Even so the question lingers. Perhaps its not them you need to worry about, Marshall. The question is if you know how to make songs like that anymore?
MMLP2 drops tomorrow (Nov 5th, 2013) worldwide. Let us know what you thought of it!
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