How did an illiterate, abused dropout from the wrong side of Detroit become the biggest artist of the last 13 years? Simple answer: schizophrenia. Eminem’s gift has been balancing his two personas in his music into catchy, jaw-dropping narratives. There was Marshall Mathers, the kid from a broken home, abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, shunned by the rap community that he yearned to join and criticized for his honesty and wordplay by the public whose kids bought his albums already. That man can be found on classics like “Lose Yourself,” “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” “The Way I Am,” “Not Afraid,” and “Like Toy Soldiers.” The other side was Slim Shady, a demented, drugged out, psychotic freak that never apologized for his twisted (but occasionally accurate) views on the world. That nut-job can be found on “My Name Is,” “Without Me,” “Just Lose It,” “Guilty Conscience,” “We Made You,” and of course, “The Real Slim Shady.” When Eminem balanced these two personas, he soared to an Oscar, over 100 million albums sold worldwide, and the praise of everyone from Dr. Dre, Odd Future, Elton John, to Kendrick Lamar. There have been times, however, when he’s lost that control, especially in the last 10 years. “Encore”, released in 2004, seemed a bit overstuffed with throwaway tracks only funny to Eminem. “Relapse”, released in 2009, was too much Slim Shady and almost too unsettling even for Eminem, whereas 2010’s “Recovery” was too much Marshall, filled with songs of redemption and anger towards the demons that nearly killed him (he was 20 minutes from death after overdosing on methadone in 2007). Eminem needs to own his demons, master them, and use them as a weapon, not a crutch.
As the old saying goes, “there’s no place like home.” Eminem’s first solo album in three years (helmed by Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin) is a bit of a misrepresentation. “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” bares a similar name and album cover to the groundbreaking first installment released in 2000, but it’s no sequel. It’s more of a revisit to the mindset of the first installment, where Eminem muses about death to his haters, his broken childhood and his control of rap. There are definitely hints of LP 1 on LP 2: opener “Bad Guy” has the stalker vibe of “Stan”, except it involves Slim getting kidnapped by someone he insulted through his lyrics (which are again being accused of hinting at homophobia). The Zombies are sampled through Marshall’s hate for his long gone dad in “Rhyme Or Reason,” while “Survival” is Marshall reminding those who test him that trying to knock him down won’t do much. “So Far” uses Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” to comic effect, with Eminem being a old grump dealing with the troubles of downloading, crazed fans, camera phones and his own success. As a rapper, Eminem is on top of his game. There is a lot more bite and emotional grit in his voice now than in the past four years. On “Berzerk” and “Rap God,” his energy and quick articulation drive the song to classic status. It takes a true genius (or lyrical daredevil, at least) to slip 100 words into 20 seconds and make it cohesive, but “Rap God” pulls it off. “Berzerk,” on the other hand, is a killer party song that focus more on the performance of Eminem rather than the hook or the beat (though Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” is never a bad idea for a sample). One of the best parts of LP 2 is the production that backs Slim. Critics have sometimes cited Eminem as a backer of rap-rock with samples of Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. Dr. Dre has always brought the heavy street bears to Eminem’s music, but with Rubin (who has merged rap and rock to perfection nearly every time he has done it) keeping the beats simple and old school, overbearing beats like on “Recovery” don’t bog down Eminem.
Lyrically, this is classic Eminem: raps at breakneck speed where he figures out how to rhyme a word with orange, still throws in a homophobic slur or two and talks about the struggles with his mom and other women in general. However, some of his punch lines are a little late to the party. Does he really need to talk anymore about Sarah Palin, Asher Roth (if anyone remembers him), the Ray J-Fabolous feud (if anyone knew that happened) and when he made a reference to the Columbine shootings in LP 1? Some of the tracks are just boring, like “So Much Better” and its jealous boyfriend talk (“You say, “Okay, yeah, I’m cuckoo, hey?” Well screw you/ And I’d be the third person who screwed you today”). For some reason, he thinks singing (and I do use that term loosely) over a spacey beat can make up for his weak thank you to his ex-wife Kim (yep, he’s still dealing with her too) on “Stronger Than I Was.” A listener probably would take Eminem’s apologies to his mother a bit more seriously if they were not as bright and shiny as “Headlights” (side note: can we please stop putting fun’s Nate Ruess as a featured singer on cheesy emotional songs? We’re going to get sick of him before we get sick of fun., which nobody wants just yet). Eventually, the tracks on LP 2 become a bit formulaic: classic sample, female singing the chorus, Eminem’s half singing and then rap. Apart from repetition of subject matter, it feels as if Eminem is defending the making of this album the entire time he’s on the record. Even with “Rap God,” he’s a bit timid to accept the title, which should not be the case. Eminem deserves to be called one of the greatest MCs of all time for his carefree writing style as well as the humor and heart he puts into his work. If anything, “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” is Eminem burying the last of his hatchets and moving on with his life. He may have bleached his hair again, but Eminem is leaving the abandoned house seen on the album cover behind. He has a good idea of who he is by now, so he should be figuring out where he wants to go, because it certainly should not be back here.