Eminem’s head has always been an intensely troubling place to visit and, despite getting sober and turning 40, Marshall Mathers seems to have found little peace, but his irreverent sense of humor is definitely still in place amid the freak show.
On “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” out Tuesday (5), Eminem, Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin have made an album that is not so much a sequel to his 2000 classic, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” as it recalls his unselfconscious stream of consciousness from an era when he was less concerned with spouting a mood and message as he was with taking you on a wild and, often, very darkly entertaining ride. For some, it will be a welcome return to form; for others, it will be a reductive step back. I'm in the former camp.
Eminem’s fluid style and ADD delivery have always seemed as if someone shot a pinball into his brain and it’s bouncing from synapse to synapse, bringing forth a blitzkrieg of disparate, manic spillage as it pings willy nilly all over the place. But on “Marshall Mathers LP 2,” the level of word play and nimbleness are, at times, exhilarating to hear. And he still manages to drop more cultural references per song than most artists do in a lifetime. Think of someone: A Kardashian, a Detroit Lions player, Ray J, Gwen Stefani, even Helen Keller, they’re probably name checked here in some form or fashion.
Sadly, part of Eminem’s schtick is still to bring in personas who are homophobic and misogynistic on songs like “Rap God” and “Evil Twin,” and by now, it’s simply up to the listener to decide if that’s a reason not to listen because he’s not going to change. While it’s not an excuse, for all the hate he may spew at others (and he’s way worse on females than gays; Em still has serious, serious issues with women), he reserves the greatest amount of vitriol for himself. Time has not seemed to tame his self loathing.
Though he’s a dad with first world problems and he has a little trouble keeping up with the young whippersnappers when it comes to technology, he admits that he’s still got the maturity level of a 13-year old boy, if that. On “So Far...” he raps, “Turned 40 and still sad/teenagers act more fucking mature.” Ain’t that the truth, but I’m not sure his fans would want it any other way.
After 2009’s “Relapse” and 2012’s “Recovery” seemed almost claustrophobic, on “The Marshall Mathers LP2” feels wide open. Whether it’s Rick Rubin’s production or the smart use of samples, the result is an album that, while extremely dense, feels cohesive and well thought out, even if at times you wish Eminem would just save some of it for his overworked therapist. Let’s face it, he’s never boring.
A track by track review follows:
“Bad Guy”: All it takes is one song on the radio, Slim Shady says, and before you know it, he’s up to his old antics from the early days: killing people with a shovel. It turns out the psycho killer spiraling downward here is Stan’s little brother (remember “Stan” from The Marshall Mathers LP?) No Dido here on the track produced by The Dividends and Street Runner (there’s a clear dramatic division between the song’s two styles). It’s a bracing, hands-off-the wheel story of someone coming unhinged that serves as an interesting, though not particularly compelling, introduction: GRADE: B-
“Parking Lot”: A 55-second skit composed mainly of sounds of footsteps of Eminem running as sirens come after him,and, horrifically, the sound of him shooting a dog before he’s taken out. GRADE: D
“Rhyme Or Reason”: Built around the Zombies’ “Time of Season,” Eminem answers back to such lyrics as “What’s your name” and “Who’s Your Daddy,” before going into his very credible Yoda impression to reference Rick Rubin. A seamless amalgam of the rock classic and Eminem's singing and rapping that really shouldn’t work, but it does. “There’s no rhyme or no reason for nothing,” Eminem declares in this exercise in working out his still-raging Daddy issues. Eminem's “a white honky devil with two horns that don’t honk” who has come to take back what’s his. GRADE: B+
“So Much Better”: Oh, let’s face it, who hasn’t thought “My life would be so much better if you just dropped dead.” This is a lurching, supposedly comedic look at someone who’s broken his heart and he’s not about to get over it. “If it wasn’t for blow jobs/you’d be unemployed,” he declares and in reference to Jay Z, she’s all 99 of his problems. Musically, it’s a fun romp, but his misogyny runs so rampant here, that it’s tough to take and when he ends with “I’m just playing bitch, you know I love you,” he only makes it worse. GRADE: C
“Survival”: An in-your-face track that opens with ringing, throbbing guitars. Lyrically, Eminem details his rise in music and his devotion to his craft in stark life-or-death terms: “If I don’t do this music shit/I lose my shit,” in his usual intense, matter of fact way, as compares rhymes wit "coming into battle" with him compete with the automatic weapons. He warns any newcomers that taking him on will be a lost cause. A chorus, sung by the New Royales’ Liz Rodrigues, reinforces the “Survival” theme, as she sings, “This is survival of the fittest...this is winner take it all.” GRADE: B
“Legacy”: A trip into Eminem’s past as he discovers rapping will be his legacy and maybe having his brain wired differently was all worth it. He addresses his ability to link “lines like crosswords” declaring “I ain’t halting until I die of exhaustion,” to all who came after him on this skipping track. New York singer/songwriter Polina plays Dido’s ethereal part here. It’s as close as Eminem gets to a self-empowerment song. GRADE: B-
“Asshole” (featuring Skylar Grey): One of Eminem’s best rants as he runs through his career like a freight train (check out the percussion on the track) on this hard-charging track taking on everything from Helen Keller to Gwen Stefani to mass murderer James Holmes. “Sometimes I forget I’m a parent,” he says, admitting he probably should never have been one. It’s a bit of a “many a truth is said in jest” song with Grey’s light-handed touch adding to the levity. GRADE: A
“Berzerk”: Producer Rick Rubin’s hand hovers over this track more than a number of the other tracks here. The beginning has a distinctly Beastie Boys’ party feel (thanks to some fun BB samples) and the melody, based around Billy Squier’s “Strokin’, brings in a rock element to this chaotic track that lives up to its name. GRADE: B
“Rap God”: His speed, breath control and range here is nothing short of astonishing as Eminem moves from one topic to the next with such dexterity that he leaves you breathless. He wrestles with his demons and takes no prisoners. By the end, he manages to piss off all his detractors, but there’s no denying his supremacy in this six-minute track that comes closest to earning him the Rap God mantle, even if he does want it to appear that the song is tongue in cheek. GRADE: A
“Brainless”: Using a somewhat familiar mid-tempo beat and loop, Eminem addresses bullying and “If I could just get my head out of my ass, I could accomplish any task.” Somewhat a cousin to “Legacy,” he revisits high school when he had rhymes falling out of his pocket and no one to listen to them. GRADE: B-
“Stronger Than I Was”: A bit of a change of pace that seems to be about a relationship that went horribly awry. This is the closest Eminem normally comes to a ballad and the closest he comes to singing. “I’ll still be hopeful when I scream Fuck You because I’m stronger than I was,” he sings, in what passes for an improvement in his book. GRADE: B-
“The Monster” featuring Rihanna: “Love the Way You Live” duo reunites on this tale of a man who’s a monster, who’s trying to tame the monsters inside his head. The song, which debuted at No. 1 on the UK singles chart, is a look at fame that’s as chilling as it is catchy, although with none of the heartstopping menace of "Lie." GRADE: B-
“So Far...”: Shady returns and he just wants to be left alone, especially when he’s dropping a load... so remember not to ask for his autograph when he’s using the bathroom. Eminem raps over Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” as he details first world problems, many of them unique to celebrities, others to anyone who’s lucky enough to not struggle in a day-to-day existence. This love letter to Detroit also contains some of his most hilarious lyrics ever. “Turned 40 and still sad/teenagers act more fucking mature,” may be his truest lyric on the whole album. GRADE: B
“Love Game” featuring Kendrick Lamar: Sampling Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ 1965 hit, “Game of Love,” “Love Game” is absolutely irresistible musically. He and Lamar tangle with the intricacies of love and in Eminem’s world, there’s perhaps no more romantic statement than “I f**king love you, f**king bitch,” especially as the girl is holding a gun to his face. He’s dumped a girl because she blew Kanye, Lil Wayne, and seemingly a whole roster of rappers, but neither he nor Lamar, who’s style complements Eminem perfectly here, can let her go. It’s horribly misogynistic, and yet cartoonish in a De La Soul crossed with Digital Underground way. GRADE: A
“Highlights”: featuring Nate Ruess: As anyone knows, Eminem has mommy issues and they play out writ large here in this slow jam that serves as an apology to his mother, but explains why “I’ll always love you from afar.” There’s no happy ending here. His deadbeat dad still, understandably, raises his ire given that he would (as he has proved) follow his daughter “to the end of the atlas” to find her, yet his father couldn’t be bothered to find him when his mother moved across town. Fun.s’ Ruess provides a delicate refrain of “I guess we are who we are” that gives the song a lightness and reinforces the forgiveness that Eminem is trying to bestow. GRADE: B+
“Evil Twin”: A six-minute rant where Eminem manages to name drop Sarahs Palin and Marshall and Jessicas Simpson and Alba, as well as a phalanx of other famous folks, as he tries to convince us that his evil twin is responsible for all the mischief before allowing that they are one and the same. He throws back to "The Real Slim Shady" (note the Burger King reference) in a song that feels like retread. GRADE: C