Monday, November 4, 2013

album review: 'the marshall mathers lp 2' by eminem

If you know music in the past fifteen years, you know Eminem. You probably own one of his albums, considering his classic album The Marshall Mathers LP has gone diamond in the States. He has become a fixture in American pop culture, and with several acclaimed albums under his belt, some could make the argument he has nothing left to prove.

And yet I don't think anyone has told Eminem that, as recent releases seem to have taken the form of an artist trying to recapture the spirit of something that he once had and is now gone, and he's never quite managed to find it in the same way. And this is speaking as an Eminem fan who will defend all of his albums. Yes, even Encore and Relapse, a pair of albums that aren't quite as bad as certain folks have made them out to be. Yes, Encore is incredibly uneven and contains some of the worst raps of Eminem's career, but it's also an album that does exactly what it was designed to do: a ritualistic endpoint for Eminem's career (characterized by his drug-induced spiral of depression) capped off by artistic suicide on the last track. And yet, the fans hated it and demanded the return of Slim Shady, and Eminem did just that five years later on Relapse, a tortured and punishingly bleak album where Eminem brought all of the sick nastiness behind Slim Shady to the forefront and said, 'You wanted it, you got it'. The mistakes he made with both of these albums is that stylized artistic ugliness works best with a good core framework, and the haphazard rapping and accents damaged that core and compromised those albums.

Fortunately, Eminem corrected this with 2010's Recovery, his spiritual revival where he finally put to bed some of the demons that had been haunting him over the past several years - primarily finding his place in the modern hip-hop landscape, his drug overdose in 2007, his constant issues with women, and finally the death of his best friend Proof in 2006. However, a new problem began cropping up here and on his team-up with Royce de 5'9'' the next year: the instrumentation always felt a little too polished and slick for Eminem, and lacked that gritty edge that made so much of his old material compelling. Furthermore, despite superb technical skills, Eminem's anger now felt directionless as he had solved the majority of his issues, and the resulting albums felt unfocused and too dour for their own good. The nadir of this was 'Lighters', a momentum-killing turd of a song that didn't work for me in the slightest and epitomized the worst symptoms of both poor instrumentation and unfocused rage.

And I've got to be honest here, when I heard about The Marshall Mathers LP 2, I was more than a little concerned that these problems were going to get worse. I mean, I love The Marshall Mathers LP, the album is a goddamn classic, so why besmirch it by making an record that's probably guaranteed not to be a follow-up aligned with the original on a thematic level? That album's dark madness had a lot to say about Eminem's personal psychoses and his issues with fame, pop culture, women, and his audience - and I was willing to bet that Eminem, despite being a great rapper of superb technical skill, probably would not return to this well of influences. And coupled with the list of guest stars and my own natural skepticism, I was dreading this album's release and I expected the worst. Did I get it?


Well, no, not really. In fact, this Eminem album was certainly an interesting endeavour, and one that I think I should really sit on for the next couple weeks to truly let it sink in -

No, I'm just messing with you all here, so let me give you the fast and dirty. Is The Marshall Mathers LP 2 good? Yes. Is it great? Yes. Is it better than The Marshall Mathers LP? No. Is it one of the best albums of the year? Well, no. Look, it's a strong album and one that surprised me in a good way - it's easily Eminem's best album in over a decade - but it's far from perfect and hampered by a number of real problems that will seriously put off a lot of critics and listeners (although I do suspect my personal favourites on this album might differ from most). Still, if you're a fan of hip-hop and rap, and especially Eminem, you're probably going to love this album regardless and it does a recommendation - just a qualified one. I will say this, though, if you're going into this album without having listened to Eminem's material in a while, you'll definitely want to go back through the discography (including mixtapes) before tackling this record, because the number of callbacks to previous albums all throughout his career is a little astounding.

Let's address the big problems first, most of which aren't really linked to Eminem himself as a rapper. No, this is in the instrumentation and production, which is really a mixed bag. Some songs harken back to the old school grime of The Marshall Mathers LP, some are decidedly more in the bombastic vein of Recovery, and others go in a completely offbeat direction that I don't think anyone would suspect, to decidedly mixed results. This is mostly an issue in the synth melody lines - there are points where it feels decidedly too polished and slick, which leeches some of the great moments of texture that used to be the hallmark of Eminem's beats. What I suspect more critics will take issue with are the occasional usage of 'heavier' instrumentation, mostly electric guitars and pounding, cacophonous drums that's very reminiscent of early Beastie Boys as the lead-off single 'Berzerk' proved. Overall, it leads to a much lighter tone on the album that's a defiant contrast to the pitch-darkness of The Marshall Mathers LP, or even the dour seriousness of Recovery. Hell, 'So Far...' and 'Love Game' are borderline comedy songs, and while I can appreciate the lighter tone, most critics are going to find them silly as hell (which they are). What's more striking is that songs like 'So Far...' and the bonus track 'Desperation' have a distinctly country twang that, well, I didn't mind it, but then again I'm the only country music critic on YouTube and I can guarantee these will be the ones largely castigated by the fanbase (which is kind of frustrating because they have a lot of flavour and 'Desperation' has a great hook). And then you have 'Love Game' which samples the 1965 classic 'Game of Love' by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and sure, I thought it was a nifty choice and it adds a ton of personality, but you can bet most angry white boys or critics aren't going to love that particular choice. But there's a downside of moving more in a heavy direction, and that is a certain amount of subtlety is lost and the songs can lose some of their edge in favour of a broad wallop that doesn't quite match Eminem's wordplay.

And, on that note, the guest stars aren't particularly strong either. I don't understand Eminem's obsession with female singers on his choruses, but as with Recovery, it's rare that they work well together and can make some of the songs feel a little overblown. Skylar Grey is serviceable enough (although someone really needs to lend that girl some personality), and Rihanna is better on 'The Monster' than she's been in months, but Sia doesn't really impress on her bonus track, and Liz Rodrigues proves shocking anonymous on 'Survival'. I think the biggest disappointment comes from Nate Ruess - he's already an awkward fit on an Eminem song, and while his chorus isn't bad, whose bright idea was it to slather his vocals in distracting Autotune? As for rappers on this album, the only one who shows up is Kendrick Lamar on 'Love Game', and while it's not the worst verse he's ever dropped, it's definitely not his best.

So what about Eminem himself? Well, as I've said in the past, the man is a master with flow and wordplay, and the number of punchlines and insane references he crams his songs with are enough to make anyone's head spin - although I will say it got quite annoying when the music dropped out more than one time in a song on a punchline (you lose some of the impact when you do it over and over again). But I do have one big issue with Eminem here and that's the singing - and while he's more on tune than he used to be, it's distracting as all hell and it gets more than a little embarrassing on 'Stronger Than I Was', which seems to be a much less subtle take on Encore's 'Love You More' with an R&B twist and playing it almost entirely straight. Em, you said on 'Hallie's Song' that you can't sing, and you know you can rap your hooks, so why on earth did you include this? It's easily the worst song on this record, and the sad fact is that it had some pretty decent instrumentation.

But let's look at the larger picture - I said back in my Pusha T review that technical rapping proficiency and talent is my baseline for good rap, with the content being what puts it above and beyond in my books. And much to my surprise, Eminem delivers here more than I expected he would. I'm not going to spoil all of the little moments - including the one in the opening track 'Bad Guy' that will hit you like a sack of bricks when you pick up on it (one of the reasons that despite its slow build, it works incredibly well as an album opener in establishing themes and the narrative throughline) - but I will say that targets for Eminem's anger do materialize, mostly courtesy of his absentee father, bullies that made his life hell in school, and yes, women in the perpetually bad relationships that materialize on Eminem albums. And yes, I'd be lying by omission if I didn't say the latter doesn't kind of reek of some misogyny, although it's so broadly over-the-top that it's impossible to take seriously, although Eminem does toe the line between reality and fiction with his intensity and you can bet there'll be a whole slew of guys who'll take it at face value.

Although the funny thing is that this album is probably Eminem's least controversial to date - there aren't that many of the twisted horrorcore fantasies that were so big on The Marshall Mathers LP, and the elements of gay-bashing are significantly cranked back and confined to the Slim Shady persona. Hell, after years of diss tracks, he includes 'Headlights', which is basically a longform reconciliation track directed at his mother, not so much an apology but a change of heart I don't think anyone could have seen coming. And much to pleasant surprise, the social commentary comes back in a big way, but now with an interesting twist. While Slim Shady in the past took aim at the vapidness of pop culture in the late 90s, now he's living in a world shaped by his music and there are significant segments of the tracks taking the subtext of his previous works and turning it into straight-up text: that Slim Shady is not a role model, never was, and that it's perversely sickening that so many people empathize and idolize him. That's always been the strength of Eminem's best work: intelligently framing himself as the villain and asshole, way too open about his most personal emotions (which makes the female-driven choruses make too much sense), and completely devoid of a filter. And really, the tracks that focus in on Eminem's reflexive analysis of his fame are some of the best on the album, with 'Bad Guy', 'Asshole', 'Rap God', 'Brainless', especially 'Evil Twin' and even 'The Monster' are great critiques of the perverse effects of his own success. 'Wicked Ways', even, on the bonus disc, is worthy of some analysis as Eminem drops the fact that he might have Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum - and considering his obsessiveness, his introversion and desire to be left alone, his crippling social awkwardness outside of music, and his complete openness regardless of consequence (amongst other reasons...), I'm inclined to buy it. What's more impressive is that he never uses it as an excuse - it's just something he had to deal with, and I can respect that. Now some might argue that 'Evil Twin' is a direct refutation of the separation between Slim Shady and Eminem, particularly given the final lines, but it works because the underlying message is still here: even if there was no separation and the terrible things Slim Shady said were a manifestation of real, genuine thoughts Eminem had, he has always stressed that nobody should have bought into it because of his framing - it was the subtext behind Relapse and now he's finally made it the main text of this entire album.

So does Eminem have a solution to the culture he's been instrumental in crafting? Well, outside of pitch-black nihilism, not really. If he has any goals with this album, however, it's these: he wants to set the record straight regarding Slim Shady and how anyone who bought into the ugly surface messages of his music never got the point; and he wants to leave behind some inspiration for kids growing up just like him. On multiple tracks he articulates the choices he made to harness his talent early on and how it's brought him a success he never could have dreamed, playing with the same self-deprecating comedy that he's always had, particularly on the riotously hilarious 'So Far...'. From a larger thematic viewpoint, this is definitely an album designed to look backwards on the past, from the intimate within Eminem's personal life and psyche to the music that made him a legend to the cultural impact he's had at large, good and bad. Some might argue that this album takes him to task for some of it, especially the opening track 'Bad Guy' (which really is damn great as I've been emphasizing and is one of the best album openers I've heard all year, if only for nailing the dramatic build and payoff), but really it's just making explicit everything Eminem said between the lines on previous albums, and while there is a certain lack of subtlety to that, Eminem hammers the basic message home so effectively that it almost doesn't matter.

So in the end, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is a great album - a flawed album, to be sure, but a great one all the same. If you're a hardcore fan of Eminem, you'll definitely see it as a return to form and there's enough little shifts in direction that make it refreshing. There will be plenty of critics who will deride some of the album's unabashed sincerity and occasional bad jokes as corny and well, they aren't wrong, but it didn't bother me as much. I was more annoyed by the singing, the occasionally lackluster guest star, and the frustrating lack of texture and instrumental prowess on some tracks. But even with that, the flow and wordplay are some of the best you'll find in rap today, and it's such a welcome sight to have Eminem actually have something fresh to say. This album gets an 8/10, and a solid recommendation from me.

Folks, Shady's back. Tell your friends, and get this album.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant review. Nothing more to add

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  2. Excellent review, possibly the best MMLP2 review I heard aside from MAYBE Rap Critic. A few things though:

    1) Your top three, while I can respect, were kinda weird. So Far, Love Game, and A*****e? Well don't get me wrong, I love all of them (I think So Far and A*****e are 5 out of 5 songs( but I think those three are among the worst on the album. My top three are Bad Guy, Rap God, and Wicked Ways.

    2) Your reasoning for disliking Stronger Than I Was is probably the least valid of any critic I've seen so far. You don't dislike it because it's corny. You don't dislike it because of the Recovery-like subject matter. You dislike it because Eminem is singing. That could've been justified if you didn't bring up Hailie's Song right before it. I think STIW is a 9 out of 10 song.

    3) Can you please stop bringing up Lighters? I mean, you put it on your worst of 2011 list, but you've bashed it in EVERY review having to do with Eminem. It's kinda annoying.

    4) Nate Ruess was an excellent choice for Headlights. It was the closest thing Eminem had to having his brother Nate in a song. I thought Headlights was one of the five best songs from the album.

    5) I think you focused on production a little TOO much. His rhymes and wordplay were immaculate, as you said.

    Other than that, 10/10 review.

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  3. oh my god what the hell is this eminem 10/10 bullshit

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