Eminem’s ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’: Album Review

Carl Williott | November 5, 2013 5:30 am
Over the past 12 months or so, lyricism in rap has witnessed a mini-renaissance, and Eminem‘s The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (out ) is the culmination of this trend. Like Kendrick Lamar‘s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Earl Sweatshirt‘s Doris and Killer Mike and El-P‘s Run The Jewels, this album is a knotty, showy gatling gun of rhymes that should come with footnotes, and thus it’s perfect for the Rap Genius era. Over 16 hyper-meta tracks, Slim Shady sprints all the way through a marathon of references to his old lyrics, beats and even skits, jump-cutting from one voice to another, like the T-1000 at the end of Terminator 2 when it melts and cycles through all its assumed identities. Depending on how you approach it, the result is either a behemoth that buckles under the weight of its self-indulgence and well-trodden subject matter, or it’s an ornate piece of verbal origami folding in on itself inside a hall of mirrors.

I fall in the latter camp. There’s an impressive commitment to craft here as Eminem raps with laser-beam focus, showing his lyrical abilities have only gotten stronger now that he’s clean and well into adulthood. The mic skills he flaunts on the trio of “Bad Guy,” “Rap God” and “Evil Twin” alone settles the “best rapper alive” debate for at least the rest of 2013 (his run at the 4:30 mark in “Rap God” is something for the annals of hip-hop). And even the stale songs have some mind-bending wordplay (see the NFL-Dick Butkus bars on the otherwise unremarkable “Legacy”).

But stellar rapping from Eminem is a given. The most surprising aspect of this LP is that so much of it sounds fresh. Em found new ways to clean out his closet by zeroing in on his absentee father, particularly on “Rhyme Or Reason,” which boasts a nifty do-si-do with the daddy-centric “Time Of The Season” sample. On the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Headlights,” Eminem’s apology to his mother, which serves as probably the most sympathetic and authentic moment in his entire catalog. And it’s the only Eminem beat that could be described as cheery or, hell, even twee.

Meanwhile, Em takes advantage of some off-kilter sampling on a handful of tracks, including “Berzerk,” Rick Rubin‘s sliced-and-diced take on rockin’ late-80s rap, as well as the ’60s pop-drenched “Rhyme Or Reason” and “Love Game.” On the latter track, he brought in the thoughtful and gritty Kendrick Lamar to sing and playfully rap about… blow jobs. It’s a move that’s nearly as counter-intuitive and bold as Kanye West‘s decision to have gun-toting driller Chief Keef eschew rapping for singing duties on Yeezus (add that to the list of hidden parallels between this album and Kanye’s). Even with the very un-Kendrick subject matter, K-Dot nails the album’s only rap cameo, channeling Shady’s schizoid rhyming schemes.

The Detroit MC even managed to bolster that already-astounding bullpen of voices, somehow sounding more stable without losing expressiveness, a trick boosted by his occasional use of screwed-down vocals. That stuff all amounts to a solid number of curveballs for a guy in his forties who was never known for his sonic risks to begin with.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that MMLP2 is at its weakest when it sounds most like an actual sequel. “Legacy” is a stale retread of “Stan,” right down to the rain effects and non-famous female on the hook. “So Much Better” sounds like a leftover beat from that era, while “Survival” fails to match the militaristic stomp of “‘Till I Collapse” off his 2002 follow-up. And then there’s the album’s low point, “Stronger Than I Was.” Here, Em sings for some three minutes in one of those tedious Serious Artist moments — when we all know he can convey more seriousness and artistry doing what he does best, which is rapping his face off.

Thankfully, that’s what he does for the vast majority of MMLP2. Despite dealing in some unexciting beats and a swath of tepid hooks (a notable exception, unsurprisingly, is Rihanna‘s chorus on “The Monster”), the album largely succeeds because the rhymes are so impressive and because no MC is better at playing into his own shtick and simultaneously manipulating the way it’s perceived.

Would said shtick be better without the rampant misogyny and outrage-baiting homophobia? Of course. But at least this time those parts seem to come with a flurry of audible winks as part of this career-surveying Russian nesting doll game, a game that also results in emotionally devastating fare like “Headlights” and narrative mindfucks like “Bad Guy.”

So when you put it together, warts and all, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is Eminem’s most earnest and most tongue-in-cheek album, a mammoth exercise in cognitive dissonance and po-mo referentialism. What the rap genius has done is construct an immersive and exhausting Slim Shady scavenger hunt for the Rap Genius generation.

Best Listened To: When you’ve tired of Drake‘s sad-sack sing-rapping and just want some old-fashioned mic pyrotechnics.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Carl Williott

A little extra on Eminem’s new LP:

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