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Producers: Dr. Dre (executive producer), Eminem, Rick Rubin (executive producer), DJ Khalil, DVLP, Frequency No ID, StreetRunner, S1
Features: Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Skylar Grey, Nate Ruess, Jaime N Commons (deluxe edition), Sia (deluxe edition)
Eminem holds the unique distinction of being the single most Monday-morning-quarterbacked artist in hip-hop. Every one of his releases—with the possible exception of 8 Mile, which was his fastball-down-the-middle (to mix a couple sports metaphors right off the bat)—has been relentlessly second-guessed by pundits and critics. He’s not serious enough. He’s too serious. He talks too much about his personal life. He needs to talk more about his personal life. He needs more Dre beats. He needs more outside producers. Yada yada yada… You’ve heard it all. So has he.
Somehow, despite all the know-it-alls knowing it all, Eminem’s managed to make the specific artistic decisions that have yielded a catalog that’s revered by fans, as well as contemporaries, and has sold so many records, that a tower of his CD jewel cases would reach a height eight times higher than the earth's atmosphere. So now at 41—rich as shit, famous as fuck, still living in Detroit, still stuck in the '90s, and still rapping as well as anyone’s ever rapped—he’s made the decision to make an album for himself.
As was the case with the original Mathers album—which stuck out like a green hat with an orange bill, musically—this body of work exists for the purpose of exorcising the noise in his brain via shock and awe.
As such, if you are not an Eminem fan—which is to say that you’re turned off by rage, the casual hurling of homophobic epithets, pointed, pervasive misogyny, and beats that fall out of the spectrum of what is considered “hot” hip-hop production—this is not going to be the album to sell you on him. Go listen to The Eminem Show or 8 Mile, and step into a world.
If, on the other hand, you are an Eminem fan—which is to say that you’re able to compartmentalize your gender and sexual politics in order to enjoy hyper-articulate, hyper-tortured self-examination (and self-immolation), and get a kick out of hearing the art of rap pushed to its technical limits over quirky music unlike anything any other artist would choose—then, well, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is here to scratch your itch.
Yes, in a 2013 hip-hop scene that celebrates worldliness, the advent of leather jogging pants, and evolved attitudes on sexual preference, “Eminem Music” (which truly could be subgenre unto itself) can’t help but feel, at times, like Channing Tatum one-strapping his knapsack on the first day of school in 21 Jump Street. But that’s the point. That’s the tension. Where Eminem’s 2010 album Recovery sought to fit in, to reassert him within the context of the pop and hip-hop music of the time, MMLP2 shirks the pretense of conforming. (Although songs like “The Monster” certainly don’t shirk the pretense of appealing.) As was the case with the original Mathers album—which stuck out like a green hat with an orange bill, musically—this body of work exists for the purpose of exorcising the noise in his brain via shock and awe.
And it does both. However, where MMLP leaned more heavily on shock to spark controversy, the new offering’s central preoccupation is inspiring awe to spark conversation. Conversation about who’s the best rapper. "Awesome" in the truest meaning of the word, “Rap God” is at the same time an exhausting exhibition in wordplay—one that is perhaps without peer in terms of pure execution—and also a clever reflection on his career. “Well, that's what they do when they get jealous, they confuse it/It's not hip-hop, it's pop, cause I found a hella way to fuse it/With rock, shock rap with Doc… ‘I don't know how to make songs like that, I don't know what words to use’/Let me know when it occurs to you/While I’m ripping any one of these verses, that versus you, it’s curtains.” Never let it be said that Eminem dumbed it down to double his dollars. Besides the head-spinning verbiage, the physicality of his rapping is so fierce you can’t help but imagine veins in his neck throbbing and spit flying around the booth. This is not “cool.” This does not care about being cool. This is about an almost frightening level of, a near-religious devotion to, craft. This is about testing one's own limits, about personal-best.
Equally ambitious, on the album’s intro, “Bad Guy,” Eminem uses his gift for narration to turn what appears at first like a hokey conclusion to his epic “Stan” into a poignant moment of personal revelation. Thirteen years later, Stan’s little brother, Matthew Mitchell, the one who got igged on the autograph in Denver, is comin’ back on some G Rap shit, like he's avenging his brother’s death. 'Cause he is, in fact, avenging his brother’s death—by kidnapping and killing Eminem. But at the moment of truth, the music shifts and Em wakes from what he realizes is his own morbid dream. Stan, Matthew, and even Slim Shady are all projections of his subconscious, his own insecurity embodied. He admits to creating these coping mechanisms to deflect his own discomfort with the hypocrisy of his art—to have been bullied as a child only to to grow up to bully (gays, in particular) as an adult, to in dehumanizing women in his work while putting his daughters on a pedestal at home, to lament his own celebrity while still white-knuckling it to the end.
He admits to creating these coping mechanisms to deflect his own discomfort with the hypocrisy of his art—to have been bullied as a child only to to grow up to bully (gays, in particular) as an adult, to in dehumanizing women in his work while putting his daughters on a pedestal at home, to lamen his own celebrity while still white-knuckling it to the end.13
And it is in these honest, introspective moments that the album is most satisfying. The mirror-effect songwriting on “Legacy” illustrates Em's journey from self-hate to self-respect through the tool of hip-hop. “So Far…,” a madcap roasting of the idea of a glamorous celebrity life, is one of the most entertaining story songs he has ever recorded. Marrying Joe Walsh’s acerbic, arena-rock reflection on celebrity, “Life’s Been Good” with Schooly D’s “PSK (What Does It Mean?)” samplewise, the story finds our world-famous hero befuddled by modern technology. In Walsh’s comic timber he belts, “Got friends on Facebook, all over the world/Not sure what that means, they tell me it’s good...” Later, after being stalked by a fan in the frozen food aisles of Costco while fighting a nosebleed, he escapes to his car, only to get caught at a red light with a finger in his nose by two young women who recognize him. They laugh. Norman Mailer once described being the heavyweight champion of the world as akin to God’s big toe. Being the best rapper alive is not dissimilar. Apparently, when no one’s looking, even God gets toe cheese.
MMLP2 matches its candor with rare moments of emotional maturity. On “Stronger Than I Was,” Eminem revisits the sung styles of “Hailey’s Song” to parse his long on-again-off-again relationship with the love/hate of his life, Kim—and finds the silver lining of personal fortitude in their shared, torturous history. He hasn’t exactly forgiven her, but he is certainly appreciative for the exercise. Far more shocking even is “Headlights.” In a bombastic, over-the-top pop ballad, Em, a father of teenagers, has a moment of realization: parents are just people, struggling to sort it all out like the rest of us. And so he reaches a place of forgiveness with the most frequently recurring villain in his body of work—his mother. “Why're we always at each other’s throats?" he ask. "Especially when Dad, he fucked us both!” For the first time on record, Eminem acknowledges the fact that, for all of his mother’s damaged-and-damaging shortcomings, she did, at least, stick around.
Though it is unlikely, in fact, impossible, that the second Marshall Mathers LP will recreate the moment in pop music that its predecessor brought about, to focus on that is to miss the point. The reception of an album is a byproduct of the music, inevitably effected by time and circumstance—it is not the music itself. That Eminem has managed to revisit his career-defining work, 13 years later, and not just carbon-copy it, but advance many of the themes and ideas it introduced, with such deft, studied mastery of his craft, is nothing short of a victory. A pretty great one.
If that’s the kind of thing you like, of course. —Noah Callahan-Bever