13 years is a long time for anything, especially music. Hip-hop is in a completely different existence now versus where it was at the turn of the millennium. Eminem’s place in this new era of rap is still uncertain especially to him. In 2000 Eminem was on top of the world and that’s not too exaggerative. His debut album, The Slim Shady LP, was a huge seller. He found himself winning a Grammy Award for best Rap Album in 2000, and backed by Dr. Dre and an impressive reputation as a veteran rap battler, Eminem was quickly becoming a household name - then The Marshall Mathers LP came out and blew everyone away. In retrospect, it seems like perhaps it was Eminem’s first record that best showed his genius but it was The Marshall Mathers LP that really solidified his place as the new biggest rapper around. It sold faster than any album by any artist in history. It offended everyone; politicians, parents and activists of all kind. It was a genius album with some of the best and funniest songs. Cleverness comes bursting out of the seams of it even ten years later. Some of the 90s references are a little dated but of course that’s the backlash of rapping about pop culture alongside your own life.
Rapping about his own life is something Eminem certainly knows well. He has never been shy to pretty much bare it all out there for everyone to see. His troubled childhood, resentment and confusion towards his mother and bitter hatred to the father he never had, his undying love for his daughter and on-again-off-again love affair with Kim Scott. Eminem had huge success with his first two LPs and he followed them up with a third record with nearly as impressive tunes. The Eminem Show wasn’t quite the brilliance of its predecessors but Eminem is a pretty lovable guy and with songs as clever as “White America” and “Superman”, it’s easy to brush it of as 'the album Eminem released after he was huge', and call it just that. He had a major motion picture based on his life growing up in Detroit at the same time which was huge and obviously time-consuming so he had that as a reasonable excuse for the perhaps not full-throttle third release.
However… Two years later Eminem’s album Encore comes out in late 2004 and doesn’t suit the slightly older Eminem very well. It’s kind of a reiteration of what’s come before in almost every sense. Lame vaguely radio friendly songs that sound kind of like the stuff he had done, songs like “Like Toy Soldiers” and “Ass Like That” did really well and the album charted at Number one, but musically it was unimpressive. Controversial for sure, the music video for “Just Lose It” caused an uproar, and “Mosh” got Eminem in trouble with the Bush administration. So, if the goal is to sell records, Encore was a good idea, but musically? For the first time Eminem seems unsure of himself. And maybe he realised it, because shortly after he unofficially retired from rap. Four years pass and Eminem’s not as huge as he once was. Rap fans endearingly respect the aging star for his excellent early albums but are an Eminem return really necessary? If he could release another album as great as his first two, for sure it would be.
Relapse was not exactly that. Overall it was not well received by anyone. One or two singles “We Made You” and “Beautiful” were briefly well played but not to the level a name like Eminem should gander. And most fans were just unsure what was going on here. Eminem in 2009 was nearing 40 and still rapping about things as if he was 25 and it doesn’t come off as well. The best songs on Relapse are the ones that best aspire to MMLP and Slim Shady LP but doesn’t live up. Eminem seems almost emotionally seeking reassurance that he’s still as good a rapper as he once.
The overall response being negative, Eminem returns with what can only be described as his most confusing output in his history. Recovery released 13 months after Relapse, and its narrative sequel. Why is Recovery confusing? Because it’s not very good but it’s hard to understand why. Eminem is, technically, doing everything he should be here. He’s rapping very seriously, matured and off drugs and alcohol for the first time in his life. Which is kind of what we wanted from him but that’s also kind of the problem with the album. Eminem serious can be his best but as this album proves, also his worst. Recovery has its moments – but they are few and far between and most of the album is cringe worthy and try-hard. The trouble with the Relapse and Recovery releases IS that they do come off as very dated. Artists like Eminem and Marilyn Manson just don’t seem to be adjusting well to the changing pop-music culture and scene and what was very shocking in 1999 in an era of internet picture leaks and jaded teenagers and even pre-teens - shocking lyrics are harder to sell. “3 A.M.” isn’t scary when put next to someone like Tyler, the Creator or even some of Lady Gaga’s freakier shit. But, despite Recovery being musically uncomfortable and technically flawed, the singles came along at the right time and blew up one after another, finishing off well with the Rihanna duet “Love the Way You Lie” which became one of 'those songs' on the radio back in 2010.
Three years have gone by since those records came out. Mr. Mathers took a break from his Eminem moniker and released a so-so release under the Bad Meets Evil name and made the rounds on all the big television night shows. Letterman, Jonathan Ross, 60 Minutes, commercials, Eminem was everywhere. So Eminem then announces his new album is called The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and with that title, he acknowledges his intention to follow up his magnum opus with an album of greater or equal mastership. Is it possible? He’s still got Dre backing him, but Dre’s not really the respected name he was in those 90s post-NWA days. He’s a salesman for overpriced, under-performing headphones and only has the discovery of Kendrick Lamar to give him some credit in the last few years. He DOES have said rapper on a duet on the record, which is promising among a few other popular and noted appearances. Right away it’s important understand that since this album IS declared a sequel it’s hard not to compare it constantly to The Marshall Mathers LP, which dooms it from the start. Nobody is going in to this album thinking it will be ANYWHERE near as good, compared to its predecessor, it’s stupid to think so. And surprise, surprise it’s not at all. That said, it’s actually not the disaster I expected it to be either.
Eminem begins the record with “Bad Guy", a pleasantly lengthy homage to perhaps his biggest hit track “Stan”, from the first Mathers LP. The song continues the story of “Stan” with Stan’s younger brother coming to kill Eminem. On paper it sounds corny and perhaps spun up in the same business meeting where someone suggested naming the album Marshall Mathers LP 2 simply to grab the sales. Shockingly it’s actually pretty catchy and glimmers as one of the best moments on the album. I almost wish he had ended the album with the track as opposed to opening it. It pays homage to the past well while humbly acknowledging the lacklustre years in between and hopefully gazing onward. Folk pop singer Sarah Jaffe provides soothing chorus vocals that add well to the tracks atmosphere. If you’re looking for early Eminem sound, this is the closest to it on the record.
This isn’t just about regression, we know from Relapse that Eminem trying to do Eminem can be a really nasty headache, so we want innovation too. Eminem seems to be thinking along these same lines too with “Rhyme or Reason” and “So Much Better”, but god they don’t work out. This is a pretty ancient joke but if you look on Wikipedia for the definition of the word “filler” it might cross-reference tracks from this record. The middles of the album are so sufferable that I might even prefer Relapse. “Legacy”, “Asshole”, “Brainless”, these songs are just pretty horrible. “Rhyme or Reason” is in particular really difficult to listen to, mostly as a fan of the Zombies to hear their big hit tune ruined seems entirely inexcusable.
Another thing we have to expect from Eminem at this point is singles. After the commercial success of Recovery and “Love The Way You Lie”, another track with Rihanna isn’t too unexpected. “Survival” and “Berzerk” is also the defined singles. Rihanna’s track “The Monster” is pretty terrible but I’m sure it’ll go over well with certain crowds. The other singles are okay. “Berzerk” bothers me because if it was without its cheesy Beastie Boys-esque 80s style it might actually be catchy but it’s hard to listen to half of the song because it’s so absolutely worthless. The strangest moment on the album comes near the end. “Headlights” featuring Nate Ruess of fun. and the Format fame. His presence here, like every other featured performance he’s been in since their colossally well-selling-but-awfully-produced sophomore release Some Nights is for one reason and one reason only - sales. It’s pretty doubtful that even Eminem would deny this, it’s so blatantly obviously. The two’s parts in the songs are from different universes entirely and 1999 Eminem would probably take the master of the track and smash it to bits.
However, as earlier mentioned, the song has a surprising number of really good moments! Noteworthy include “Rap God” and “Love Game” where Eminem demonstrates not only his skill as a rapper but also genuinely sounds like he’s having fun and most comfortable. He sounds like he’s in the right spot and we get a glimmer of where Eminem SHOULD be in 2013. “Love Game” in particular, contrasting Eminem with Kendrick Lamar works well. Putting Kendrick on a track with Eminem right now seems like it might be a really stupid mistake, a rapper who is perhaps the best in the current game with a 40 year old former top-rapper seems like he might get out-shined on his own LP. It actually flows really great and unlike Recovery’s troublesome single “No Love” where Lil Wayne and Eminem sound completely lost, this featured performance actually comes off as a true gem.
The album has one last track of redeeming value which is “Stronger Than I Was” a cheesy but endearing ballad, think “Hailie’s Song” but older and more concise. It’s the least hip-hop song on the record, but it shows vitality despite what is perhaps cliché lyrics and production. If it wasn’t Eminem, it might be less acceptable. So in The Marshall Mathers LP 2 we see a much older Eminem making peace with his mother, declaring more undying love to his darling daughter and creating some more killer rhymes. He doesn’t embarrass himself quite like he did a few years back. He released a genuinely okay album somewhere between The Eminem Show and Relapse / Recovery. Confusing but reassuring that perhaps Eminem has a few things left to say before going Dre and starting to sell headphones to white girls who are... 13.