Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Too bad Einstein never met Eminem.
As the title of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 suggests, the 41-year-old rap icon’s eighth solo outing revisits his Grammy-winning sophomore album from 2000. But this isn’t some fading idol’s bid to cash in by xeroxing his glory days. It’s the work of a man retracing his steps to figure out where he stands and where he’s headed. Sure, he’s still rapping about his messed-up youth and family, his distrust of fame and his supremacy on the mic. But he also spends time regretting choices, pondering karma, questioning his relevance and dumping personal baggage. In many ways, it’s the soundtrack to mid-life crisis. At the same time, it’s also one of his most enjoyable albums in years. Freed from the drugs and darkness that dragged down some of his recent albums, Eminem sounds more like his old self — hilariously shocking and wicked, skewering everyone in his path (including himself). Only now, he does it smarter and better, thanks to an unclouded mind, undiminished verbal skills and decades of experience.
“MMLP2” just demonstrates how singular a presence Eminem at 41 remains. Though he’s unquestionably one of the form’s giants – his last album, 2010’s quadruple-platinum “Recovery,” was that year’s biggest-selling – he seems no less a hip-hop represent today, in an age of sensitive smooth talkers , than he did when he emerged amid the bling purveyors of the late ’90s; his out-sized feelings still set him apart.
Perhaps that’s why his primary reference point here is one of his own records, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” the 2000 album (titled after his birth name) that solidified Eminem’s reputation as a superstar and a serious artist. The rapper has said the new album isn’t a sequel to the earlier set so much as a “revisitation” of its themes: his relationships with his mother and his ex-wife, for instance, and the toxic effects of celebrity. Yet he hardly made an effort to avoid the throwback tag, with jokes about Monica Lewinsky and the Backstreet Boys, as well as sizable samples of well-worn hits by The Zombies, Joe Walsh and Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders.
“It’s like I’m in the dirt, digging up old hurt,” he admits in “Bad Guy,” which by the end of its seven minutes has turned into a deranged monologue by the little brother of the obsessed fan from Eminem’s “Stan”; later, “Legacy” recalls “Lose Yourself” in its account of the direction that music provided to a young man badly in need of some. And then there’s “Berzerk,” (video link below) the Rick Rubin-produced Beastie Boys homage in which Eminem urges, “Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop and start it from scratch.”
But if the layers of nostalgia caking “MMLP2” make starting from scratch impossible, Eminem sounds more alive – angrier, yet more fully present – than he has in years, including on the sometimes-dreary “Recovery,” where he play-by-played his crawl back from drug addiction. His intricate rhyming in tracks like “Love Game” and “Evil Twin” is nearly without equal, an opinion Eminem appears to share, as only one rapper, Kendrick Lamar, is permitted a guest spot. (Female singers, including Rihanna and Skylar Grey, are more plentiful.)
Which isn’t to say that “MMLP2” lacks for varied voices.
It does so gloriously on the stately arena rap anthem “Survival,” (video link below) which injects the listener with martial beats and a pre-game pep talk worth hearing. As always, Eminem keeps flipping between his alter egos, a means of demonstrating his technical ability – he even nails Yoda’s knotted syntax in the Star Wars referencing “Rhyme or Reason” – but also of putting some psychic distance between the real-life man and his often-horrific words. There are lots of those here, as in the harshly homophobic “Rap God” and “So Much Better,” in which a breathless narrator unloads against an ex by tweaking one of Jay Z’s hits: “I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of ’em, I need a machine gun.”
Is that “I” Eminem? Marshall Mathers? The gleefully hateful Slim Shady? It’s as unclear as the rapper, a target who’s learned to move, wants it to be. He seems more eager to take ownership of several openly confessional tracks, including “Headlights,” which proposes a détente with his mom, and “Stronger Than I Was,” an almost embarrassingly vulnerable piece of self-help testimony that Eminem produced himself – at least in part, one presumes, to protect lines like “Why do you date me if you say I make you sad?” from better judgment.
But even in his rare clunky moments, Eminem burns with purpose on “MMLP2.” And if you don’t like what he (still) has to say, there’s a chance he doesn’t either.
Bottom line: It’s the Eminem you know and love (and love to hate).
Essential Tracks: “Monster”, “Berzerk”, and “Survival”
You can listen to the album on Spotify using the following link:
“Berzerk” video link:
“Survival” video link: