There's this idea of Eminem as a reluctant celebrity turned recluse, who's holed himself up in his Detroit mansion with more money than he knows what to do with. In this scenario he strives to go about his life as his civilian alter ego, Marshall Mathers — taking care of his daughters while maintaining his sobriety with the help of a select circle of lifelong friends. But there remains this insatiability about Mathers; a need to be puerile, to be a provocateur and to do it all in rhyme. So when he does step out of his bubble, and suit up as Eminem to record rap music for the public, the results are confounding and engaging — as they are on his 7th solo major label studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, positioned as a thematic follow-up to 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP.
Rap album sequels are usually a cynical nostalgia play or an attempt to reboot a career via course corrections. Tellingly, MMLP2's songs aren't as conceptually groundbreaking as "The Way I Am," as sensitivity-assaulting as "Kill You" or as narratively poignant as "Stan," from its predecessor. But that's largely due to the fact that all of this ground has already been broken by Eminem himself. Still, on this new record, he eschews the overarching narrative of his past two efforts — this is not the horror shock-rap of 2009's Relapse or the optimistic sobriety of 2010's Recovery. Instead, he's revisiting the ideas of the first Marshall Mathers album.
There's the discomfort with fame, the eye-poking cartoon violence and, on "Bad Guy," Stan's younger brother, Matthew, who was just a sidenote over a dozen years ago, but now serves as a narrator determined to avenge his deceased brother's suicide. "Bad Guy" is a worthy sequel and, much like the Dido-sampling original that launched Eminem into the stratosphere, it takes the whole song (and multiple listens) to understand the tale. It's Eminem at his finest — experimenting with voices and tones, playing with words in a conversation and eviscerating himself by using an outside voice to amplify his doubts. (Though, on another song, he does refer to himself as "a white honky devil" and, on one more, admits "I ain't as big as I was," just after rehashing his 13-year old controversial reference to the Columbine shooting.)
As a writer, Eminem reminds us (because we severely forgot) that he's perhaps the most technically proficient rapper the art has ever seen. He doesn't just rap circles around other rappers, he draws ideograms around them, treating punchlines other rappers would trade their microphones for as filler, doodling never-heard rhyme couplets and scribbling from topic to topic with elongated and labored fancies of poetry that graffiti internal rhyme and assonance in a ridiculous collage. His white honky devil line in full goes: "I just happen to be a white devil honky with two horns that don't honk / But every time I speak you hear a beep" — accompanied by a censor's tone. It's all total rap nerd stuff — he interpolates J. J. Fad's "Supersonic" and Hot Stylz' "Lookin Boy" on one song — and it's totally necessary in a genre that's built on words, but has seen words come to mean less and less with each passing year.
On "Rhyme or Reason" he illustrates one of the album's executive producers, Rick Rubin as Yoda (complete with voice and syntax) and takes you into his writing process. "Can't even find the page I was writing this rhyme on," he raps. "Oh, it's on a rampage / Couldn't see what I wrote / I write small / It says 'Ever since I drove a '79 Lincoln with whitewalls / Had a fire in my heart / And a dire desire to aspire to die hard.'"
Some of his references are dated, but mostly in a self-reflective manner. On "Rap God," he notes that he "Got a phat knot from that rap profit / Made a living and a killing off it / Ever since Bill Clinton was still in office / With Monica Lewinsky feeling on his nutsack." It's the ramblings of man who doesn't seem to understand how he can disappear from the music landscape for months and years at a time and still have the biggest-selling album in the world (Recovery), much less be the top-selling artist of the past decade. His response? To dis marginally relevant rapper Asher Roth, take swipes at longtime foes Insane Clown Posse, offhandedly refer to Sarah Palin as a slut and treat a random celebrity as a target for nastiness every once in a while.
But, for the most part, where Eminem's past vitriol was pointed at specific persons — his mother, his daughter's mother, Mariah Carey, named bullies — he's now aiming his venom at nameless adversaries. In a sense, it's a sign of progress (he had been sued for defamation by everyone in the previous sentence who's not a pop star), but the result is a messy outpouring of unfocused misogyny and rampant homophobia that's incredibly uncomfortable to listen to.
The music doesn't help much at times. Largely produced by Eminem and Rubin (without a single track from the album's other executive producer and Eminem mentor, Dr. Dre, whose menacing, key-heavy sonics always gave Eminem the perfect sinister edge), there are obvious plays for pop relevance ("Monster" featuring Rihanna), arena-ready anthemic boasts ("Stronger Than I Was," Legacy," the "Call of Duty" tie-in "Survival") and a number of genre-jumping off-kilter numbers ("So Far" and "Love Game" with Kendrick Lamar, the album's lone guest rapper). It's almost as if he's trying everything to be accepted and unacceptable, all at once. Yet Eminem's ability to be lyrically captivating through it all is astounding. At one point he raps: "My honesty's brutal / But it's honestly futile / If I don't utilize what I do, though / For good at least once in a while / So I wanna make sure somewhere in the chickenscratch I scribble and doodle enough rhymes / To maybe try to help get some people through tough times / But I gotta keep a few punchlines."
On "Headlights," he talks directly to his mother, Debbie Mathers, apologizing for years of public vehemence. Coming near the end of the album, it's an amazing moment. After spending an hour or so doing everything he can to blame everyone else for his emotional lot in life and harping on his daddy issues, he raps, "But I'm sorry momma for 'Cleaning Out My Closet' / At the time I was angry, rightfully maybe so / Never meant that far to take it, though / 'Cause now I know it's not your fault / And I'm not makin' jokes / That song I no longer play at shows / And I cringe every time it's on the radio."
Despite being delivered via a chortle, "Headlights" is tender and vulnerable. And, hopefully, it emerges as the album's centerpiece. Eminem has always spoken to alienation, both in his raps and musical choices. He's long prospered by making pop music for the juggalo set and there are very few moments on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 where he actually shows personal growth. On "So Far...," he wrestles with problems of fame — like being approached by a fan at a McDonald's bathroom stall while taking a number two. He also complains about not understanding iPods and Playstations, or knowing how to download a new Ludacris song off the Internet. Lest he be confused with dad-rap, he confesses that he "turned 40 and still sag / Teenagers act more f---in' mature, Jack." It's engaging because he soungs like an eternal rebel coming to terms with no longer being "the youth," but it's also confounding because just this week he was honored as the Artist of the Year at the first-ever fan-decided YouTube Awards and doesn't seem to get it. "Got friends on Facebook, all over the world," he sings in a honky-tonk fashion. "Not sure what that means, they tell me it's good / So I'm Artist of the Decade, I even got a plaque / I'd hang it up, but the frame is all cracked."
At the end of it all Marshall Mathers, the man, and Eminem, the artist (and by extension, the alter alter ego of Slim Shady), are still taking steps toward being one whole person, almost a decade-and-a-half after they emerged onto the national scene. Oh "Evil Twin," the album's closer, he describes himself as a "borderline genius who's bored of his lines" and ravages about twenty pop culture touchstones before ending: "Still Shady inside / Hair every bit as dyed / As it used to be / When I first introduced y'all to my skittish side / And blamed it on him when they tried to criticize / 'Cause we are the same, b----."
At one point, he sings "I own a mansion, but live in a house / A king-sized bed, but I sleep on the couch." It's no wonder. He's got a lot of people to accommodate.