Monday, November 24, 2014

album review: 'shady xv' by eminem & shady records

I wish I had a better feeling about this album going into it than I did.

See, when I heard Eminem was talking about launching a collaboration album, I immediately had very real concerns, because I remembered when this happened eight years ago with Eminem Presents: The Re-Up, a record that had a few pretty decent songs but really was nothing all that special. I'll reiterate what I said back in March when I reviewed the Young Money compilation project, that these sorts of records are made for three purposes: reassert the strengths of the old talent; show some cool interplay across your label; and show off the new guys.

And yet Shady Records is in a bit of an odd position. In comparison with its other rap label peers, it's proved to have a shaky track record of establishing definitive new stars. Albums from Yelawolf and Slaughterhouse proved to be non-starters even despite their very real talent, and while the Bad Meets Evil project was the biggest shot of adrenaline to Royce de 5'9'''s career possible, the last EP Hell: The Sequel hasn't exactly been a record I've really revisited outside of maybe one or two songs. That's not saying I wouldn't enjoy the wordplay of records like Shady XV, but I definitely did not have high expectations.

And there were other issues too, with the lead-off single 'Guts Over Fear' being one of the Eminem's least interesting opening singles for a project ever, and while I understood bringing on Sia and Skylar Grey for hooks, why the hell was Danny Brown, DeJ Loaf, Trick Trick, and Big Sean on this album? Sure, I get it, Detroit rappers, but wouldn't it make more sense to stick with your label if you're looking to push them? And while I get putting money behind Danny Brown and DeJ Loaf, Trick-Trick hasn't been relevant in years and Big Sean shouldn't be relevant, period. And the fact that this album was also being included with a disc of former Shady Records 'hits', most of which are from artists who are no longer signed, screamed of either Interscope's interference to guarantee their investment, or pure desperation.

But you know, this is Eminem, and even though his track record has been inconsistent, he's still got a solid group of rappers behind him, so this might be pretty solid, right?

Well, I'll be honest - this is a fair bit better than I was expecting that it would be. Granted, my expectations for this album were low, but for the most part I enjoyed Shady XV. It's not without its problems - its big problems - and I'd argue it's not as good as The Marshall Mathers LP 2, it was still a surprisingly enjoyable listen. But for as much as there is some innovation on this record, it also seems to focus more than it should on a repeating a similar conceptual formula, and it's debatable whether the record gives us diminishing returns along the way.

So let's start with our rappers themselves. Slaughterhouse does a fine enough job whenever they get called up for their two tracks, although I do find differentiating them based on their content to be tricky at points, and while I didn't love the D12 track 'Bane', I will say it's better articulated than a lot of their previous work and I definitely appreciated they played the underlying concept of dealing with past grievances pretty well. Royce De 5'9'' continues to show off a lot of solid technique, even though I do feel some of his punchlines can feel a little disconnected, and while I liked seeing Danny Brown on this album, I found his verse to be a little thin, especially over this production. And yet it really was a little exasperating that DeJ Loaf and Trick Trick were put onto the hook and hype man roles for 'Detroit Vs. Everybody' - because instead of both of them, you get a Big Sean verse that completely neutered the momentum of the song and seemed to go on forever. Sure, it was a better verse than average for him, but placing him on the same song as Royce De 5'9'', Danny Brown, and Eminem himself - look, talk about being completely outclassed! The other rapper who got solo tracks to himself on this album, including a shockingly strong bonus track 'Till It's Gone', was Yelawolf - and honestly, I'm still not sure how I feel about him. I like him as a rapper, with more of the country flavour with some rougher edges and his melodic delivery, but I do wish he had a little bit more lyrical flavour and diversity in his rhymes, although he does have a couple solid punchlines.

And now there's Eminem - and really, I feel anything I say about him is repeating myself. His flow and multi-syllabic rhymes are fantastic, he's got a tone of detail and his word choice is diverse as hell, and while he spews all sorts of controversial, vile material, once again, he's baiting and trolling popular culture for their reaction, with the underlying social commentary being that there'll be still plenty of people who'll outright embrace it without any self-awareness. Songs like 'Vegas' are intended to be outrageous and over-the-top - as songs by a group called Bad Meets Evil are intended to be - and obviously not taken seriously. Now that's not saying there aren't issues I have with Eminem here - coming back to 'Vegas', the opening bars of that track feels loaded with filler lyrics and there are points where he could afford to cut to the chase with more cutting rhymes. On top of that, I don't know why he still insists on singing, like with Skylar Grey on 'Twisted', where only Yelawolf has actually has a rap verse. Sure, there's a good crescendo in the chorus and verses, but it doesn't nearly feel like the best utilization of Eminem's talents.

What gets to be a larger issue is content - and honestly, when this album sticks to sheer brutal wordplay, grotesque imagery, and the rappers going over-the-top, the album works. But the more I played through this album, the more it felt like Eminem particularly was retreading ground in his artistic process, or even backsliding. 'Psychopath Killer' features a jab at his mother who he reconciled with last year, 'Die Alone' is another song that shows all of the reasons Eminem and Kim should never ever get back together and how Eminem really needs to get over her already, 'Fine Line' feels like a retread of many of the same double messages he's put over dozens of tracks toeing the line between releasing inspirational material and the mental loops he has to jump through to reconcile it with the more vile lyrics, 'Twisted' might as well be 'Love The Way You Lie Part III', and 'Right For Me' is simply Eminem going on a drug-fueled lyrical bender that is impressive but ultimately feels a little weightless. And I've already said that I wasn't a fan of the lead-off single 'Guts Over Fear', which quite literally is about Eminem recycling his creative process to mine whatever scraps might come out against a ponderously heavy hook from Sia that reminded me way too much of the worse edges of Recovery. And what becomes worrisome is how Eminem is coming to perceive his world - an incredibly potent lyricist who feels he has maxed out, still impressively skilled but lacking new inspiration and increasingly feeling imprisoned by his own fame - in other words, very close to the same feelings that came right before he set fire to his own career with the intentional artistic suicide of Encore. Hell, he even references 'Fack', a song he acknowledges was the worst thing he's ever released and put on his greatest hits album basically as a middle-finger to everyone. And sure, it's a label compilation, you can't really expect him to craft together a full album statement of assorted tracks and showing blisteringly strong wordplay is really all one could have expected, but I can't help but feel Eminem could have at least tried to plow some new ground.

So while I've got some harsh words for the content, what about the instrumentation. Well honestly, it's something of a mixed bag - and partially for a reason that's been an issue for years now, that being Eminem's choice of samples and singers for hooks. I already mentioned Sia and Skylar Grey, but then you have Kobe on 'Die Along' which sounded way too overmixed and borderline soulful to fit on an abrasive Eminem beat, the scratchy grainy sample on 'Fine Line' that does not sound flattering at all and almost singlehandedly knocks that song back a peg, or the Luis Resto sample for 'Right For Me' that just felt it lacked a little bit of weight to match the rest of the song. Sure, it was eerie and matched the drugged out vibe, but it could have been better mixed. Which is a damn shame, because these are some of the best beats Eminem has put together in years, excising some of the monochromatic drabness of Alex da Kid and showing Eminem working with glitchier, darker production like on the murky storm 'Psychopathic Killer', the rattling glitchy sound of 'Die Alone', the heavy sludgy crunch of the guitar on 'Vegas', and the heavier punch of 'Detroit Vs. Everyone'. And while I know some aren't really a fan of the more guitar-driven tracks, like the rock sample on the title track, the distant howl of guitar and dusty percussion on Yelawolf's 'Down' or the great groove-driven lick on 'Till It's Gone' with the thunderclap beat, I really dug it. That being said, like most compilation albums there are a few tracks that just felt instrumentally out-of-place, like the scratchy old-school pianos on Slaughterhouse's 'Y'All Ready Know' or the wobbling pop and obvious pitch correction on D12's 'Bane', even though I did like the some clanking percussion on that song. Hell, the drums all over this album were surprisingly strong, and it really does bang with a lot of presence. 

So at the end of the day, let's revisit my criteria for label compilations. Of course your old stalwarts do great, and if we were looking for an album that got me interested in Yelawolf's upcoming album, it definitely got me there. As for interplay between artists - eh, it's hit-and-miss, and nowhere near as cohesive as you'd find on the most recent Run The Jewels record, but outside of Eminem's baffling choice to not show up on D12's song, it's otherwise fine. And that's really how I feel about this album - some great wordplay, some punchy beats, a couple fantastic lines courtesy of one of the best rappers to ever hit the mainstream, but to some extent it feels like more of the same, especially for Eminem. And that's part of what you get with a compilation record in this vein, and expecting more from that is pointless. For me, it's a light 7/10 - definitely some enjoyable content, albeit being very familiar, and it'll definitely go down easy with a lot of Eminem fans. But Eminem is capable of better, and I can only hope he opts to go in a new direction - go political, go incredibly personal, go for a concept album, push the genre towards something more experimental - because right now it I've got an uneasy feeling about what might come next from the head of Shady Records.

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