"I've still got a lot of growing up to do...
But when it's all said and done I'll be 40
Before I know it..."
-Eminem, age 26, The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000
In a year when some of rap's heavyweights pushed their craft either creatively (in the case of Kanye West's innovative Yeezus), or by breaking new marketing ground (such as Jay Z's Magna Carta...Holy Grail) the smaller scale ambitions of Eminem seem quaint by comparison. Content to obsessively relive his past, Eminem is frequently criticized for rarely exiting his comfort zone, constantly returning to familiar subject matter. This made the autobiographical diversions of his past few albums feel redundant, and his celeb-baiting stale and juvenile.
His first comeback album, 2009's Relapse, was generally considered an artistic misfire for those reasons, while its follow-up, 2010's Recovery, was a successful, if creatively timid, record that failed to do much beyond check off a series of commercial boxes, ensuring Eminem's status as a watered down, mainstream force.
And really, in 2013, what place is there for a middle-age rapper who proudly boasts of not being able to use a computer, and seemingly still believes gay-bashing is a clever way to generate publicity?
The Internet felt collective unease when The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (obviously a sequel to one of the most acclaimed and successful albums of the 2000s) was first announced in late August. Creating a companion piece to pop culture staples treads a dangerous line, and risks blemishing the legacy of the original, iconic work (just ask The Godfather: Part III, or the TV movie sequel to Gone with the Wind).
Both for hip hop and American culture, the landscape in 2013 is vastly different than it was during the early 2000s, Eminem's peak in popularity. Rap is no longer content to rest on its laurels, slowly moving away from some of its retrograde conventions. And, as alluded in the failure of Relapse, enough things have shifted culturally to make Eminem's lyrical history of mocking women and homosexuals seem, if not offensive, just kind of tired and archaic. As a now 41-year-old rapper who once actively courted controversy, how does an artist like Eminem remain relevant without further descending into self-parody? Further, on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, he seems to be grappling with a larger question: what exactly will his legacy be?
Remarkably, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 succeeds not by trying to explicitly recreate the magic of its predecessor (which, one could argue, was the downfall of Relapse), or by playing it safe like Recovery. Instead, the new album revisits the original Mathers LP, offering a fresh thematic perspective both on the career of Eminem and the state of mind that enabled his career to become one of the biggest in the music history.
Of course, nostalgia is central to Eminem's current popularity, whether it's his sound (he is arguably a spiritual successor to the 70s country rock he absorbed growing up), his desire to be a 'true lyricist' (hat tip: Beastie Boys-inspired lead single, "Berzerk") or his own, storied career. It was once said Eminem spent his first two albums being truly provocative, and has cruised along ever since commenting on those early, eccentric years in the crosshairs. There is some truth to that, especially here, although with a new, almost solemn flavor.
The fourth verse of the opening track, "Bad Guy," jumpstarts the album with righteous power. It is a searing call for accountability, if not simply for Eminem's transgressions, but our own. Playing spoiler, the song is essentially a sequel to Eminem's seminal "Stan," which was on the original Mathers LP. The effect is not straightforward, thankfully, as that would have rendered "Bad Guy" an obvious and bankrupt song (both conceptually and, most likely, in execution). By the end of the third verse, Eminem has been killed by Stan's brother, Matthew Mitchell (note the initials). This is when the themes of Mathers LP II become evident; it is a feverishly honest verse taking the rapper to task for a life's work of profiting off groups that could not defend themselves. Matthew is killing the rapper not simply for a personal vendetta, but for a lifetime of perceived misogyny and homophobia (this is for [Stan] and Frank Ocean...Now say you hate homos again). The impeachment continues and grows more pointed:
I also represent anyone on the receiving end/ of those jokes you offend/
...I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen...
After the track is demolished/ I am your lack of a conscience
...I'm the polyps on the back of your tonsils
Eating your vocal chords after your concerts...
I'm the bullies you hate, that you became
With every faggot you slaughtered
Coming back on you every woman you insult
I represent everything you take for granted
Content-wise, the verse speaks more than just to Eminem's own sins. Like his greatest work ("Lose Yourself") it carries universal appeal. The last two minutes of "Bad Guy" represents our own shortcomings, the possibility we all might one day be called to reckon with our misdeeds and small moral failings. In a fury, Eminem lacerates the "yolo mentality"; every night we go out drinking, the things we said we wish we didn't, the things we never said to those that are now gone (or gone to us). It is a powerful message from a rapper who once said, as Matthew reminds him, he was nothing but a "bad guy who makes fun of people that die."
The next track resumes a famous moment off "Criminal" on the original LP, and depicts the rapper, having robbed a bank, eventually being tracked down by police and surrounded. His time is up.
This is the crux of The Marshall Mathers LP II, or why he bothered to concoct a sequel in the first place. It is his taking stock of his career's impact and reconciling himself with unintended consequences of his actions. Youth is in the rearview mirror for him now, and throughout the album he confronts the boredom, isolation and overall shambles of his personal life. It is, in short, an album about regret.
Few have drawn the contempt of so many but, in the launch of original Mathers LP, Eminem achieved just that. His controversy ignited a fierce battle over language and tolerance, dividing both ends of the political spectrum over what was fit to enter the public dialogue. Granted, Eminem was an inexplicable first amendment activist: he was rapping about torturing gays, beating up women and, context be damned, raping his own mother.
In its aftermath, in which Eminem was embraced by Elton John, won an Oscar and sold millions of more records, public opinion suggests Eminem achieved a kind of vindication, or moral victory over his critics. Some point to, as South Park does, the fact that "either it's all okay, or none of it." That may be true, but it does not account for lingering issues over what this kind of a career does to a person's soul.
Regret is a touchstone, sometimes an irreconcilable sensation many are overwhelmed by, while others learn to accept. While many of us have a kaleidoscope of quiet offenses we secretly wish to be absolved for, Eminem, always a larger-than-life figure, broadcast his on an international stage.
On "Headlights" he reexamines his infamous relationship with his mother and produces one of the most sentimental, and heartfelt moments of his career. "Legacy" is yet another glance back at his troubled upbringing, but this time through the lens of a man who understands how those experiences shaped him, and can be used to let him commiserate with others. Even the more pop-oriented tracks are laced with pathos - the "Life's Been Good" sampling "So Far" features the rapper questioning whether karma has finally caught up to him, while his latest collaboration with Rihanna, "The Monster," focuses on depression. The best moments of Mathers LP II are raw catharsis, the results of years of gained perspective, slowly earned maturation and, presumably, therapy.
The album is by no means perfect, and some of the rapper's admissions of hypocrisy feel more like a cop out than a true rumination on his own contradictions ("Asshole"). A track like "Stronger than I Was" works because it reflects new creative territory for the rapper. (He is also, for once, culpable in the breakup he describes.) By contrast, many of the other 'playful' digs at women laced throughout the album feel boring and false. If he insists on continuing to grouse about his trust issues, the standard should be higher than many of the puns he inserts in the name of being tongue-in-cheek.
Touching on one of his signature albums could have proven extremely problematic and, truly, much of Mathers LP II does not match the original's dark energy. Fortunately, Eminem's conflicted internal battles over his legacy and the consequences of his words makes this an essential listen for the rapper's fans and casual pop rap fans alike. Purists and contrarians may refuse to buy into that narrative, as is their prerogative, but for the rest of us, this could be a fitting emotional denouement by one of music's strongest voices (he has now fulfilled his contract with Aftermath, FYI). Reflection enables growth and with Mathers LP II he may have finally liberated himself once and for all.
The closet is once again cleaned.