11/11/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Second Impressions: Marshall Mathers

Opening The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is a seven-minute set-piece called "Bad Guy." The beat is, for the most part, a two-tone blinker reverb'd to sound like hightops squeaking on a basketball court: left, right, left, right. Eminem starts in at the fifth bar, fastening his lines with deadpan end rhymes; the effect is sustained tension, blank space piercing the verse like a gasp for air. Gradually, the rapper revs his engine, opening up with assonance, inverted constructions, slant rhymes, triple-decker puns, a bit of snarl. You can hear him come into his own so much that by the first chorus, it sounds like more of what we've been taught to expect from Eminem -- another wordy murder ballad aimed at the rapper's ex-wife, his mother, his father, you, anyone, really.

But then the third verse: "How's this for a publicity stunt? This should be fun / Last album now cause after this you'll be officially done / Eminem killed by M&M / Matthew Mitchell, bitch, I even have your initials."

Like a tale from the Twilight Zone, the story abruptly turns on its head: the "bitch" we hear screaming in the trunk is Eminem. The driver, 'Matthew Mitchell,' is the fictive younger brother of 2000's "Stan" (and a plain cipher for Marshall Mathers). As the car careens off the bridge and sinks into the water, the last verse detunes to a demonic rumbling: "I also represent anyone on the receiving end of those jokes you invent / I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen / I'm the denial that you're hopelessly in / But you refuse to believe that it's over, here we go all over again."

And here, finally, is the artist Marshall Mathers in first, second and third-person, as his own voodoo doll: the bitch, the bad guy and the acute self-awareness lyricizing these imaginations from above or, as it were, from below. The next one-hundred minutes turn every shade of Eminem -- gifted ironist, voluble snot, misogynist, doting father, asshole, penitent, white trash, battered child, gadfly, homophobe, libertine, thug, addict, sweetheart, head case, wimpy kid, Citizen Kane -- this guy contains multitudes.

And he anthemizes them.

Riffing off "Time of the Season," The Zombies breathy dispatch from the Summer of Love, MMLP2's "Rhyme or Reason" is updated for a generation whose disenchantment swells to ungrammatical profundity in the hook, "There's no rhyme or no reason for nothing."

Eminem's familiar scorched earth routine is the MO of "So Much Better" -- what the lyrics lack in depth is, for better or worse, more than made up by jilted malignity: "I got 99 problems and a bitch ain't one / She's all 99 of them, I need a machine gun." Likewise, the vapid radio singles "Monster" and "Berzerk," give two fingers to the gallery; these songs are for the pit. And yet the latter, a shameless knockoff of "Fight For Your Right to Party," betrays boredom with Eminem's pop audience: "Question is are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid."

As if to labor the point, that song leads immediately to "Rap God": a rhetorical bulldozer dropping at terminal velocity (for sixteen bars, that equals 6.5 words per second). By way of comparison, Kanye West's "I Am A God" was only teasing; this is a serious curriculum vitae, an explicit statement of linguistic authority. For six minutes, serrated insights, potty humor, shock tactics, sucker punches and dated take-downs (whither Monica Lewinsky and Wacka Flocka?) are cuisinarted with hip hop history, Norse mythology and a a bastardization of James Weldon Johnson's poem, "The Prodigal Son." If he is a 'rap god,' it's because nothing is sacred.

Odd chinks in Eminem's machismo reveal a working heart, but they also compromise the integrity of this album: on cornball tracks like "Stronger Than I Was" or "Beautiful Pain," the rapper may as well be slow-dancing with himself. Then again, "So Far" (a play on Joe Walsh's rockstarry-eyed "Life's Been Good") finds the 41-year-old worried about his crow's feet, which, in a genre overrun by dick-swinging Peter Pans, is kind of charming.

Caveat emptor: Despite age and wisdom (or maybe because of them), Eminem is, as much as ever, for everyone and no one. MMLP2 is a reminder that whether or not Eminem's still got it will never be as interesting as the question of which Eminem one is talking about, and why.

But if you're asking me, well...look: No cultural product is as fraught, practically dead on arrival, as the sequel. It's the rocky shore on which artists seem always to be washing up after their time. Naming this eighth studio album the successor to a chart-buster he wrote 13 years ago -- before two divorces, one arrest and a handful of lawsuits, before Hollywood, before 150 million dollars, before addiction, relapse and recovery and the middling records named after them -- was a risk. I remember when The Marshall Mathers LP came out; I was twelve. What made that record special, really a phenomenon, was intuitive even to kids my age: here were pungent songs with a sensitivity to language that comes around maybe once in a generation. Thirteen years on, I'm reminded why I wasn't allowed to listen to The Marshall Mathers LP, and why I did. So make it twice.