Review: ‘Marshall Mathers LP 2’

After years spent hon­ing his craft in cut-throat rap battles in the bowels of Detroit, as chron­icled in 8 Mile, and set­ting the under­ground alight with his prodi­gious tal­ent, Eminem was cata­pul­ted into the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness by the run­away suc­cess of his major label debut album, ‘The Slim Shady LP’. This estab­lished him as one of the freshest, most intriguing, and for many, most dan­ger­ous, artists of his gen­er­a­tion. With a cata­logue of caustic rhymes that could make even the most lib­er­al listen­er blush, the skinny white boy rap­per from the streets of Michigan, became America’s pub­lic enemy num­ber one as he exposed sub­urb­an hypo­crisy and riffed on hard-to-swal­low home truths in an emphat­ic bird-flip­ping, crotch-grabbing rebel­lion.

Des­pite the out­pour­ing of pub­lic hatred that his con­tro­ver­sial style garnered, the Mis­souri-born rap­per proved that great art can come from adversity and on third album, the metafic­tion­al tour-de-force of the ‘Mar­shall Math­ers LP’, he dir­ectly addressed his staunchest crit­ics (the media, the pub­lic and his own fam­ily) with unpar­alleled vit­ri­ol, glor­i­ous irony and a self-reflex­iv­ity that could rival the greatest works of Post­mod­ern­ist lit­er­at­ure. The album’s title sup­por­ted the intro­spec­tion of its con­tent, a more com­plex study of the man behind the hyper­act­ive and car­toon-esque Slim Shady remind­ing us that this obnox­ious per­sona, much like Dav­id Bowie’s infam­ous rock god, Ziggy Star­dust, was a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter brought to life by a music­al vis­ion­ary.  Yet, it was this dicho­tomy between the two that gave the album its power, as along­side the angry per­son­al diatribes of ‘The Way I Am’ and ‘Mar­shall Math­ers’, the rap­per fre­quently intro­duced him­self as his alter-ego in order to blur the bound­ar­ies between fact and fic­tion, mak­ing it impossible to decide where the hon­esty of Mar­shall ended and the sub­ver­sion of Slim began.

Pan­or­amic in scope, Eminem high­lighted Hollywood’s fer­vent glor­i­fic­a­tion of viol­ence and the sexu­al­ised ideo­lo­gies of cos­met­ic com­pan­ies as being just as culp­able in affect­ing the beha­viour of Amer­ic­an youth as his ‘dan­ger­ous’ lyr­ics, spat lines on the trap­pings of fame and the attri­bu­tion of high school mas­sacres to his music on ‘The Way I Am’ and enacted night­mar­ish revenge on his estranged wife in murder-fantasy, ‘Kim’, which show­cased the rapper’s self-destructiv­ity and fra­gile human­ity. Refresh­ingly self-ref­er­en­tial, the album con­tained tra­gic epis­tolary tales (‘Stan’), dazzling self-myth­o­lo­gising (‘The Real Slim Shady’) and com­ic­al crit­ic­al rebukes (‘Kill You’). On the lat­ter, the rap­per trod the line between intel­li­gent and offens­ive, deal­ing with a theme that appeared to val­id­ate his crit­ic­al deri­sion, by implant­ing shock lan­guage into his verses to fuel their argu­ments, before clev­erly under­min­ing crit­ics with deft dis­plays of irony.

Of course, some of this cri­ti­cism was war­ran­ted as his taut and acerbic rhymes often veered into the offens­ive. The miso­gyny that reared its ugly head on ‘Bitch Please II’ and ‘Remem­ber Me?’ and the homo­pho­bia of ‘Ken Kani­ff’ and ‘Crim­in­al’ belied his genu­ine skill for word­play and appeared crass, juven­ile and dis­ap­point­ing on an album chock-full of astute lyr­i­cism.

Everything that the rap­per has com­mit­ted to record since has paled in com­par­is­on to this feat of geni­us, and Em knows it.  With this in mind, his recently released eighth stu­dio album, the ‘Mar­shall Math­ers LP 2’, pays homage to the 2000 Grammy award-win­ner, in recog­ni­tion of the long-play­er that trans­formed the rap­per into one of the globe’s pre-emin­ent music­al icons and cemen­ted his place in hip-hop’s élite can­on. From its tit­u­lar affin­ity to pur­posely sim­il­ar cov­er art, this hints at a sym­bol­ic rela­tion­ship between the two records and appears to be the divis­ive rapper’s attempt to imbue his latest effort with the imme­di­acy, infec­tious beats and icon­o­clasm of the work that is widely-regarded as his mag­num opus. But how does the con­tro­versy-invit­ing rapper’s new­est work com­pare to his cel­eb­rated mas­ter­piece?

The long-awaited fol­low-up to 2010’s lacklustre Recov­ery opens with the lengthy ‘Bad Guy’. Sur­pris­ingly, this cut could well be the best song of Eminem’s stor­ied career. A self-ref­er­en­tial mas­ter class in which the rap­per adopts the guise of a little boy whose life he has affected irre­voc­ably (one was made to ‘wait in the blis­ter­ing cold for four hours’  to catch a glimpse of the hero who drove his men­tally-unstable and obsess­ive broth­er to sui­cide) ‘Stan’s’ Mat­thew Mitchell. Now grown and hell-bent on aven­ging Stan, Matthew’s impas­sioned murder bal­lad demon­strates Eminem’s irre­press­ible word­play and innate knack for storytelling, glee­fully re-work­ing the mem­or­able lyr­ics of one of his most icon­ic songs and instilling them with fresh mean­ing to aug­ment the depth and com­plex­ity of the ori­gin­al nar­rat­ive.

It’s obvi­ous that Mat­thew Mitchell’s decap­it­a­tion of the man who wronged his broth­er acts as a shrewd mir­ror­ing of the rapper’s repeated endeav­ours to break away from the shad­ow of his most suc­cess­ful album, pro­du­cing record after record that have failed to recap­ture its mag­ni­fi­cence. It is indeed iron­ic that after years of crit­ic­al attempts to denounce the shock-rap­per, it tran­spires that only Eminem can kill Eminem. A con­tender for career best, ‘Bad Guy’ also appears fit­tingly proph­et­ic of the sub­sequent songs that fail to match the intens­ity and intel­li­gence of this open­er and its name-sake album, ‘try­ing to recap­ture that light­ning trapped in a bottle/twice the magic that star­ted it all/tra­gic por­trait of an artist tortured/trapped in his own draw­ings.’

Liv­ing up to the dev­ast­at­ing power of this career-defin­ing open­er often proves impossible and for a con­sid­er­able amount of time, the album under­whelms after such an arrest­ing start. It’s not that songs such as the bit­ter melod­ic miso­gyny of ‘So Much Bet­ter’, the sens­it­ive beauty of the life-affirm­ing ‘Leg­acy’ or the Dar­wini­an ‘Sur­viv­al’ are bad but it’s just that they simply can­not com­pete with ‘Bad Guy’s’ rampant and invent­ive inter­tex­tu­al­ity. Fur­ther­more, Eminem’s age (now 41) under­mines his attempts to recall the exuber­ant and bound­less aggres­sion that the 28-year-old 8‑miler chan­nelled on the ‘Mar­shall Math­ers LP’, his mel­low­ing blunt­ing the dis­tinct­ive bile-enthused atti­tude that he ped­alled on the album’s spir­itu­al pre­de­cessor. Indeed, Em’s once vir­u­lent vocab­u­lary threatens to be rendered impot­ent by the loom­ing spectre of middle-age.

This mel­low­ing, how­ever, is effect­ively util­ised on two of the album’s most intro­spect­ive tracks, ‘Stronger Than I Was’ and ‘Head­lights’. Unlike the angry self-stud­ies that pop­u­late his 2000 release, Eminem eschews bili­ous rants to dis­play a softer side, admit­ting his mis­takes and track­ing his pro­gres­sion as a human being with a calm and tran­quil ambi­ence pre­vi­ously reserved for tracks that centre around the ‘only women that he loves, his daugh­ters’. ‘Head­lights’, apart from the need­less inclu­sion of rent-a-bal­lad part­ner and expo­nent of bland, fun’s Nate Ruess, will become one of the most import­ant, and most emo­tion­al, cuts in Eminem’s dis­co­graphy. Once again address­ing his estranged moth­er, Debbie Math­ers, the mel­low­er Mar­shall retraces his steps and apo­lo­gies to the woman who has  been the inspir­a­tion for his viol­ent demean­our and rage-infec­ted words for many years, admit­ting of his embar­rass­ment at hear­ing the bru­tal soul-expos­ing ‘Clean­in’ Out My Closet’ on the radio and humbly accept­ing the reas­ons for her shaky par­ent­ing. Although its lacer­at­ing and tear-tempt­ing hon­esty often verges on being undone by Ruess’ schmaltzy vocal styl­ings, the pain and emo­tion that reside in the song’s main body rep­res­ent a paradigm shift in the rapper’s per­cep­tions, finally let­ting sleep­ing moms lie.

As artists, musi­cians should not be cas­tig­ated for ral­ly­ing against expect­a­tion and openly exper­i­ment­ing with new sounds and ideas. Indeed, without the will to push their own cre­at­ive bound­ar­ies, The Beatles would not be spoken of as son­ic innov­at­ors but a flash-in-the-pan ‘60s incarn­a­tion of One Dir­ec­tion; ser­en­ad­ing hor­mon­al teen­agers with sac­char­ine tales of hold­ing hands and prom­ises of dia­mond rings. And as a rap­per, Eminem is no dif­fer­ent. Yet, the rock­i­er vibe that couches comeback single ‘Ber­serk’ and under­whelm­ing gui­tar-driv­en dead­beat dad-swip­ing ‘Rhyme or Reas­on’ under­cuts his acerbic poetry and deval­ues the razor-sharp wit that was once won­der­fully com­pli­men­ted by sparse back­ing tracks on his early mater­i­al. Super­star pro­du­cer, Rick Rubin (one of a col­lec­tion who worked on the album) is the prob­able archi­tect of its fre­quent six-string indul­gence but fails to rep­lic­ate the geni­us rap-rock hybrid­ity that abounds on the Beast­ie Boys’ ‘Rhym­ing and Steal­ing’ and Run DMC/Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’, two genre-bend­ing tracks that made him a house­hold name.

How­ever, the aur­al exper­i­ment­a­tion and eclect­ic sampling (Joe Walsh’s ‘Life’s Been Good’ and Wayne Fontana and the Mind­bend­ers’ ‘Game of Love’) on oth­er Rubin-helmed tracks ‘So Far…’ and ‘Love Game’ sees the rap­per move into uncharted ter­rit­ory, adding a reg­gae ele­ment to his arsen­al. The lat­ter fea­tures the rap genre’s new kid on the block, Kendrick Lamar, trad­ing com­ic verses with his idol, a guest spot that can be read as the aging rapper’s cham­pi­on­ing of a suc­cessor to his throne. Fur­ther col­lab­or­a­tions include the rap­id-fire rhymes of ‘Asshole’, a duet with Sky­lar Grey, and the Rihanna-fea­tur­ing ‘The Mon­ster’. It would be cyn­ic­al (and accur­ate) to sug­gest that Rihanna’s inclu­sion is purely to optim­ise chart suc­cess and its pop-ori­ent­ated pro­duc­tion cer­tainly lends it to main­stream ears. Some­what inev­it­ably, the song’s med­it­a­tion on inner demons sup­por­ted by an infec­tious sing-along chor­us cour­tesy of the con­tro­ver­sial pop prin­cess has helped it to become, yes; you’ve guessed it, a multi-time chart-top­ping mon­ster.

Although it’s a little dis­heart­en­ing to listen to a formerly rad­ic­al artist pro­du­cing a song with a fig­ure who would have pre­vi­ously been in the fir­ing line of his defam­at­ory obser­va­tion, it merely sup­ports the album’s biggest dis­cov­ery: Eminem has become much more leni­ent in his old age, ton­ing down the cyn­icism and bury­ing the hatchet with past tar­gets. On this record, his aston­ish­ing tech­nic­al abil­ity and rarely-equalled lin­guist­ic manip­u­la­tions are here in full flow and des­pite being devoid of juven­il­ia (and per­haps some of his edge), the ‘Mar­shall Math­ers LP 2’ is the sound of a troubled per­son arriv­ing at accept­ance, embra­cing the being with­in. Closer ‘Evil Twin’ feels akin to a eulogy for the id-like Slim Shady, mark­ing the trans­ition from angry imma­tur­ity to con­tent adult­hood. Or it would if it wasn’t fol­lowed by a child­ish skit that lit­er­ally recalls Slim’s per­verse toi­let humour. Impossible to unravel and fully decipher, the ‘Mar­shall Math­ers LP 2’ is an aston­ish­ing return to form for one of the rap genre’s greatest ever per­formers. The best since its inspir­a­tion­al name­sake.




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Micky Roots

Micky Roots

Micky roots is one of the edit­ors of I am hip hop magazine, a pure hip hop head and visu­al artist he brings his strong know­ledge of hip hop, social con­scious­ness & polit­ic­al con­cern to No Bounds.

About Micky Roots

Micky Roots
Micky roots is one of the editors of I am hip hop magazine, a pure hip hop head and visual artist he brings his strong knowledge of hip hop, social consciousness & political concern to No Bounds.

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