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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