Eminem is, by any definition of the term, a legacy artist. The cold hard facts bear that out. Statistically he’s the most popular rapper in the history of the genre and because of such it’s impossible to measure the worth of his new album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, outside of that context. This works in Em’s favor when charged with the thankless task of moving units for his chosen multinational: longtime fans will grab at the new record simply as a matter of reflex, regardless of anyone’s perceived level of quality.
Where it gets stickier, however, is when critics get ahold of said record and strain themselves in determining its relevance inside a contemporary music context, mostly because the bounds of the current music scene are an unfavorable place for legacy rappers. It’s an environment that requires either aesthetic changes in order to meet the demands of newfangled production gizmos, or holding steadfast to old ways such that old and new fans alike cling to your sagging pant-legs as the winds of change gust around you.
(Exceptions exist: Jay Z has positioned himself so vitally in American culture and commerce that when the man drops a new album, we’re not just copping music, we’re subscribing to an idealized lifestyle, but I digress…)
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 doesn’t do a very good job of connecting to the current youth movement. It’s not tethered to Southern rap tropes the way ninety percent of rap radio is. Nor does it reimagine Eminem’s trademark vitriol over club-ready synth beats. Instead, it reminds us that old rappers, and their habits, die hard; that the slog of one’s progress—emotional, physical, artistic—doesn’t always require a complete abandonment of your fundamental self.
In some cases it may even require a trip backwards. For Em’s purposes, this manifests itself in Rick Rubin’s not-so-subtle touch on the tracks “Berzerk” and “So Far…”. Here, the production guru of classic rap revisits the breakbeats, cowbell, and concise guitar licks of his 1980s heyday. It’s possible these tracks will please heads in their mid-30s and early-40s — those seeking an excuse to get rowdy to new music that (finally!) their progressed sensibilities can understand — but for me, a member of said demographic, they charmed only obliquely. “So Far…” stands as one of the most self-aware tracks Em has ever released, but it’s loaded with distracting pop kitsch. And “Berzerk”, which features Billy Squier and Beastie Boys samples, is better in its constituent elements.
Rubin has better luck when he steps further back in time, lifting from a pair of ‘60s hits on “Rhyme or Reason” (“Time of the Season” by The Zombies) and “Love Game” (Wayne Fontana’s “The Game of Love”). In the latter, Em bemoans romantic exploits in the fashion to which we’ve been accustomed (that is, gratuitously derisive), and we get a peek at Kendrick Lamar’s comedic ability on the mic (full disclosure: he’s far better as the moody, introspective Good Kid).
No matter your opinion on the novelty of reaching into music’s past to generate modern hits, it’s impossible to imagine Eminem reinventing himself specifically for 2013’s adolescent set. This album does feature big ballads, with big hooks, sung by big pop stars of the moment—Rihanna on “The Monster” and Nate Ruess of Fun on “Headlights”—but both guests take a backseat to their songs’ conventional production and blatant navelgazing by the rapper. These are not fun pop songs meant to turn up new loyalists, by any means. Even “Love Game”, which features the most of-the-moment rapper working today, shares a sample with De La Soul’s “My Brother’s A Basehead”, a song fresh off the charts from… 1991.
The biggest takeaway from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is that Eminem seems to have made this album for one person, and one person only: himself. Sure he’s up to his old tricks, like yelling at his mother Debbie on “Headlights”, but this time it’s out of absolution and an overarching need to cleanse his conscience. There’s no absence of shock value here—“So Much Better” muses on how much easier life would be if your loved ones just dropped dead (debatable), and there are the requisite homophobic slurs (which come across as impotent now considering how unsustainable homophobic behavior is in this decade)—but the edges have been sanded down in comparison to the record’s older sibling. The first Marshall Mathers basked in its own gonzo personality while never letting you forget it was much smarter than people gave it credit for. The sequel is content managing a controlled burn and indulging in sonic whims that aren’t afraid to fail mightily, like the absolutely tragic rap-rock outing “Survival” and the equally unlistenable “Stronger Than I Was”. We shouldn’t be surprised, though; after all the multi-platinum success and a drug addiction that nearly ended him, the only place for Eminem to go was further inward.
Still, he remains a superlative rapper. Em runs through a myriad of flows on the transcendent but ultimately disposable “Rap God” and it’s truly a breathtaking display. And he remains at his best when assuming the role of the low-key villain like on “Brainless” and album closer “Evil Twin”. The provocativeness of his Slim Shady character has always lay somewhere between the absolute absurdity of his most outlandish rants and the threat that he might not be kidding. Might he actually rob you blind and then subsequently murder you, as he does on “Criminal” from The Marshall Mathers LP? Perhaps Marshall himself will not, but the jury is still out on his dual “Evil Twin” personality.
So as go the dichotomies of Eminem’s on-wax personas, so does the circle of life for rap’s most successful legacy artist. For the most loyal of fans, the only thing as large as the nostalgia for his music is the amount of criticism a new album generates. Maybe this is the measuring stick for true greatness in the rap game: when the demand for new artistic output can never outpace your former artistic self. The 2013 version of Eminem exists as an island unto himself, but one that millions of people will still undoubtedly visit. His gravity today is a different one from that of 2000, when the first Marshall Mathers record dropped. It relies less on violently dislocating ears from their comfy listening habits, and more on reassembling an already commissioned army circling in orbit. The trick to being Eminem is one that a lot of MCs throughout rap history have tried to execute but never quite gotten the hang of: the delicate act of not giving a fuck early on, so that, in the future, you still don’t have to.
3 out of 5
You can buy the album on Amazon.