My live review of Eminem at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival this past weekend, there was a question of if the veteran Detroit rapper could be the villain he aspires to be anymore, if his mainstream mega-hits of “Recovery” and the “ehhh” of “Relapse” made a dent in that perception.
As the Evil half of the Bad Meets Evil
project with Royce 5’9”, the answer is yes, yes he can be.
And he brings it out in Nickel Nine, too, as the pair frequently face- and bounce-off each other in the nine-track set “Hell: The Sequel.” It’s a reunion of sorts, after the two friends matched up briefly on Slim Shady’s earliest studio release, beefed, then came back together after the death D12 rhymer Proof. Em’s since signed Royce’s crew Slaughterhouse
to his Shady imprint, and this set marking the meeting of the minds.
Granted, a recording project is wildly different from a live festival performance, but what this album and Eminem’s stop-off in Manchester, Tenn., is that they’re both fun, and they’re for the fans.
“Hell: The Sequel” itself is pretty telling as a title, as contained is a mix of nightmarish bad-assery and borderline parody, a broad swath of metaphors and pop culture minutiae from the NBA to MTV, Lady Gaga to the #swagger trend to the death of David Carradine.
They were right in plucking out “Fast Lane” as the first sell. The back-and-forth heavy lifting is truly shared, big in both excesses and of excellent lyrics. I reviewed the track when it was first dropped here. Opener “Welcome 2 Hell” is another solid set of trickling, hypnotizing word-slinging, with a mix of ego, slime and wit of two rappers simultaneously throwing it all at the wall and most of it sticking. The beats steer clear for the oncoming carnage, with room to spare now that delivering a big hook isn’t the priority.
In fact, as Royce raps on “Above the Law,” “These sweet rappers wanna set us up / they never tough / They ask me for a hook / I tell 'em left to right, head or gut?” The tough-talking chorus on this one is sung by Claret Jai, who unfortunately really messes with the ratatat, grown-up flow of “Take From Me” with her little girl vocals.
And while the duo are making the case that they’re as bad as they want to be, they make sure to mark their territory with the acid-tongue of all-boys “The Reunion.” It’s a reversion of the nasty-*ss Em from his earliest albums, and an inflated Royce letting his rising fame fly in the faces of the women he “f*cks.” Slutbag, c*nt, b*tch, fat dyke, the usual complimentary buffet lineup behind the honest hilarity of women who throw themselves at rappers no matter their abuses. It’s a track so desperately offensive to women, it's lampoon: Royce is knocking the fairer sex down like bowling pins while he’s busting up fights between rival lusting parties; and Eminem reprising his complaints against an unnamed tagalong from “Recovery’s” “Won’t Back Down” (who dared to turn his stereo down in his car) and ultimately tossing her out of his moving vehicle (tip of the hat to Gucci) to her doom.
As is often the case with Eminem – and even Royce will testify – he’s out to prove nobody’s safe, everybody’s fair game. But if you’ve ever turned Nickel Nine’s mixtape “Bar Exam,” he brings as much of the danger, particularly staying toe-to-toe on “A Kiss.” While there was a big to-do over Shady’s Katy Perry and Gaga disses, Royce brings the most heat with his sexual bravado.
“Loud Noises” also features crazy, outta-this-world syncopations and lyrical bonanzas, with the beat dropping out in the most lung-tingling moments. It’s largely a showcase on Slaughterhouse (their name which is annoyingly dropped in a cartoon voice between trades) and tantalizing throw-down of what to expect from the group in the near, Shady future.
But while Em, Royce and their producers clear out some of the gimmicks and commercial pandering on many of these tracks, they obviously can’t help themselves on others, namely the saccharine single “Lighters” and goofy “I’m on Everything.” The former features Bruno Mars, whose velvety soft contributions dull the craggy edges of the verses, and the tone of the set. The latter samples stand-up comedian Mike Epps, on repeat to an unbearable degree, as Royce and now-sober Eminem makes a listicle of addiction touchstones and namecheck Brett Favre, "Dinner for Schmucks," Alf, Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. “Everything” is an exception to Marshall Mathers’ seemingly genetic inability to smile, but it’s far from his or his cohort’s finest moment
Overall, the production is hit or miss, though I appreciate how it’s toned back for maximum lyrical impact. But track-to-track, this bearably short set is incongruent, incomplete, and without statement – surprising, considering Eminem’s need for theme from album to album. But “Hell: The Sequel” is more like a signpost, a feeling of the MCs stretching out again. There’s plenty of promise, should these two decide to give this another sequel.