The first time I listened to the first Marshall Mathers LP in its entirety was shortly before the release of Relapse, when I’d just entered high school and had started doing my research on all the great Hip-Hop music I had been too sheltered to be exposed to. Before that, I remembered attempting to rip a borrowed copy of The Eminem Show I’d gotten onto the family computer before being caught by my father. I was ten years old at the time. He took the CD from me and sent me to bed.
Despite never having heard an Em song in its entirety, my dad knew enough to come to a few conclusions: the controversial lyricism, outlandish behavior, and rebellious image wasn’t what my dad wanted to expose to his young suburban son. But across America, there were millions of kids my age who were blasting and singing along to the pop culture spoofs, the touching father-daughter ballads, and the frustrations he felt towards his ex-wife and mother.
It was this continuing mythos, the epic style Eminem built which each album forged with unmatched lyrical talent, that distinguished him among other rappers and earned him respect among all corners of the Hip-Hop community.
And yet, Relapse‘s ultimately mixed reception in 2009 with Recovery’s more reserved praise the year after signaled something interesting: despite attaining arguably greater commercial success than ever and rapping lyrics that were among his best ever, critics were beginning see Eminem’s limits. The same material was being touched on again and again, and despite the lyricism, people were beginning to want a reinvention rather than a retread of older themes that had made him so famous to begin with.
Marshall Mathers LP 2, the sequel to his most successful album released thirteen years prior, promises to not just revisit old themes, but to make them better and re-introduce them for old and new fans. From its first announcement, it became unequivocally the most anticipated album in year full of Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and other industry heavy-hitters.
Calling it the Marshall Mathers LP 2, obviously I knew that there might be certain expectations. I wouldn’t want to call it that just for the sake of calling it that…to me, it’s more about the vibe, and it’s more about the nostalgia.
Let’s see if Em can bring that vibe back.
1. Bad Guy Produced by S1, M-Phazes, Streetrunner & Vinny Venditto
The album starts with, of all things, a sequel to his best song, “Stan”. But it is less of a sequel than it is a means to convey his idea that this isn’t just a continuation. The song has two parts: the first has Matthew Mitchell, the younger brother of Stan Mitchell, all grown up in the gap from MMLP to now, and he’s hungry for revenge. The way the lyrics are written, it’s hard to figure out what the song is actually about at first, or who the lyrics are being directed to. I thought Em was clever doing things this way because he’s literally starting the album off by addressing himself in rhyme, indicating that this already is going to be a more introspective album than his last few efforts. The second half is more of a coda to the first: it illuminates the fears Em has in coming back for another go around. The very last bar, slightly cut off, indicates that this may be Em’s last album. Hopefully not, as this song proves he’s more than capable of making excellent material.
2. Parking Lot (Skit) Produced by Eminem
This skit takes place directly after the skit within’ the song “Criminal”, where Eminem’s character has just shot the bank teller and is running back to the car. The car takes off, leaving him high and dry. He tries to run away before inevitably getting caught by the police, at which point he commits suicide with the pistol he shot the teller with.
I didn’t know exactly what to think about this skit when I first heard it, since it’s framed to be pretty dramatic and doesn’t have a narrative connection to the rest of the album. But, upon further listens, I assume this is another “hint” that this is indeed the last album.
3. Rhyme or Reason Produced by Rick Rubin & Eminem
This track is smooth as hell. It kicks off the unofficial “sampling” theme that the album uses throughout, where older sounding samples intercut the lyrics and hook to convey the ideas in a different way. This song doesn’t really have a subject you can pinpoint: he talks about his dad a lot at the beginning of each verse, but for the most part it’s just Em at his best lyrically, demolishing tracks as usual. I had to stop the song and restart it only eight bars into the first verse when he switched his flow up and started rapping like Yoda. This is one of the clear standouts on the album, because it’s not just a smooth track, but it’s also lyrically one of his best displays yet.
4. So Much Better Produced by Luis Resto & Eminem
I’ve always been a little bit wary of Eminem’s songs about girls, since I’d figured that chapter was effectively closed with his brilliant “Superman”. Recovery was replete with serenades dedicated to anonymous women in Em’s life. In my opinion, this brought the quality of that CD down a significant amount. This song in particular is good; on my first listen of the album, it definitely kept the vibe going. However, after subsequent listens, it begins to feel a little bit like filler. I’m sure this will be a solid song to some. For me, it’s not exactly a skip and not exactly a highlight either.
5. Survival Produced by DJ Khalil
This song, to me, sound a lot like a continuation of “Won’t Back Down” from Recovery, also produced by DJ Khalil. Like that song, Em is firing off lightning speed lyrics over a rock-inspired track, while a female vocalist handles the hook (Pink last time, this time Liz Rodrigues). I want to like this song, but it sounds too much like a retread of old subject matter. The lack of overall substance on this track can be attributed to it’s status as a single. I really wish he would’ve left this off the album and only offered it as a promo track for the Call of Duty game. Again, not bad enough to be a skip, but not good enough to standout. I will say that listening to it as part of the album made me like it a lot better than if I’d just heard it by itself.
6. Legacy Produced by Emile
This is another standout track, and it illustrates where this album goes right: when Eminem is allowed to touch on older subjects in a retrospective way like he does here, the alchemy of production, lyricism, and content come together to create something truly memorable. Truth be told, the production here isn’t too mind-blowing, and we’ve heard Eminem rap about his childhood struggles many times before. But the pictures he paints and the rhyme schemes show us the growth in his abilities.
You gon’ die a ball licker, I been diabolical/with this dialogue since ’99 Rawkus/Ya’ll don’t respect the legacy I leave behind,ya’ll can/suck a dick. The day you beat me pigs will fly out of my ass/in a flying saucer, full of italian sausage.
Another nice touch was his use of the same first bar at the start of each verse, showing a cyclic quality that parallels the theme of legacy.
7. Asshole Featuring Skylar Grey; Produced by Alex da Kid & Eminem
I like this song a lot, if only for the wordplay and flow (“even Helen Keller knows life stinks”). Skylar Grey always turns in the radio-ready hooks as usual, and this is no exception. If the title of the song wasn’t “Asshole”, this may have been one of the singles used to push the album. One of my favorite lyrics from the album are on this song too:
My soul’s escaping through this asshole that’s gaping/A black hole and I’m swallowing this track whole/with a pack of torn paper/But I’m not taking no crap, ho/Here I go down the Batpole/And I’m changing back into that old maniac/In fact there it go/Trying to dip through the back door, retreating, cause everybody knows.
To hear those lyrics delivered in time over the song is always a treat. Truth be told, I was originally on the fence regarding this song, because a lot of the tracks so far have been produced in a very pop-oriented fashion. But this is definitely another favorite of mine.
8. Berzerk Produced by Rick Rubin
The obligatory first single of the album. As much as I’ve tried–and believe me, I have–I cannot enjoy this song in the slightest. The beat is all over the place, the hook is a hodgepodge of samples and Em style crooning, and the Beastie Boys inspired sound, while admirable, sounds too dated to be relevant here. Rick Rubin’s rock style production, in my opinion, hasn’t worked for a rap song since “99 Problems”. I always skip this song on every listen, unless I’m trying to convince myself that it’s not that bad (it is). SKIP.
9. Rap God Produced by DVLP & Filthy
This song replaced “Control” as the “Rap Song Heard ‘Round The World”. I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything as intricately focused as this track ever again. Eminem walked into the booth on a mission to be as impressive as possible lyrically, and I think he accomplished that. There is a video on Youtube that takes a clip from this song and shows that he, literally, recited over a hundred words in less than twelve seconds. But this isn’t a song I could listen to all the time: I feel as though I’d have to get myself into the “OK, I’m going to listen to ‘Rap God'” mindset first before I went to experience it again. Putting it at this point in the album was the best idea: it’s clearly the climax of this project, if not the culmination of Em’s entire career.
10. Brainless Produced by Eminem & Luis Resto
This song is similar to “Rhyme or Reason”, in that it has a very vague idea that is simply an excuse to deliver another lyrical onslaught. That’s actually what most of the songs on this album are like, I can say, now ten songs in. This is another good one to listen to, because the hook, delivered by Em, sound great over the production, and the lyrics and the flow fit as well. This is another track that could be deemed as “filler”, but in my opinion it’s a nice little afterword to “Rap God”, because he shows the same dedication to lyricism here as he did on the previous track, albeit in a more digestible form.
11. Stronger Than I Was Produced by Eminem & Luis Resto
This song kicks off my least favorite part of the album. I really have no idea what Em was doing here. Some people say that this track was meant to be a song from Kim’s perspective, or even “Kim 2”. I respect those interpretations, and if that was the idea behind this song, then I think it was a good effort. But the fact is, the execution here is way off. Eminem’s singing here is atrocious, and the beat really falls flat. The difference between a track like this and say, “Hailee’s Song” from The Eminem Show, is there was the explicit meaning laid forth as well as the superior production carrying the song. Here, the production is flat and Eminem’s lyrics are too vague to lend any real resonance to the song. I can’t believe there is a song worse than Berzerk on this album. SKIP.
12. The Monster Featuring Rihanna; Produced by Frequency & Aalias
This song has “radio-hit” written all over it. One of the things that made this song so disappointing, especially on an album called MMLP2, was that on the original MMLP, Eminem lambasted songs like these. Not to mention, after hearing the other tracks on the album, the lyrics are obviously dumb-downed for the radio. I can’t really listen to this on repeat listens of the album but, hey, someone out there likes it.
13. So Far… Produced by Rick Rubin
I only listened to this song once, and I couldn’t get myself to listen to it again. I just hate it. I can’t get my head around what the intent was here. The lyrics are only OK and, again, Rick Rubin turns in another mismatch of a beat that is littered with samples and clips from old pop songs and 90’s references that make the track seem dated. At it’s best, it’s mediocre. At it’s worst, it’s simply not listenable. SKIP.
14. Love Game Featuring Kendrick Lamar; Produced by Rick Rubin
It has become clear to me that enlisting the services of Rick Rubin was a huge mistake for Eminem on this album. When I first heard this song, I thought it was a disgrace to the art of Hip-Hop. I calmed down a little bit after I realized that the intent of this song wasn’t to be serious, but to have a little bit of fun. Which is fine, although I know the collective Hip-Hop community was looking forward to a little back and forth from Eminem and Kendrick on this record. The thing is, whenever I asked people who liked the song if they’d listen to it again, I got a firm no. I think that speaks volumes. I find it damn-near impossible to comprehend the fact that the same two people who dropped the most memorable verses of the year came together to make this. For me, this is a SKIP, and up there for “worst song on the album” with “Berzerk” and “So Far…”, but a lot of Em stans seem to have made peace with it.
15. Headlights Featuring Nate Ruess; Produced by Emile, Jeff Bhasker, & Eminem
It’s funny to me that the song that would get the album back on track would be one featuring the lead singer of fun. This is a touching track dedicated to his mother in which he apologizes for all the times he’s publicly chastised her. He professes his love for her and, with the benefit of a retrospective lens, offers an explanation to why they ended up where they did. I really enjoy this song a lot, but I will say this: despite the song being the emotional high point of the album, after all the years and tracks on which we’ve heard Eminem vent about his mother, this song comes off as a little…unsatisfying. I don’t feel completely convinced of this change of heart after this song, even though I recognize that it is a very moving track. I can’t speak for how sincere Eminem really is here, but I can say it is indeed one of the songs that will resonate with listeners, and thankfully gets the album back on track.
16. Evil Twin Produced by Sid Roams & Eminem
I like this song, but again, this is the same material that we’ve seen before: Eminem’s two alter-egos battling it out as usual, before you discover that—wait for it—they’re really the same person! It’s a bit of an anticlimactic ending to an otherwise decent album. Again, the lyrics are great, but the song itself is not all that memorable in my opinion. I think “Headlights” may have been a more appropriate closer.
When I first finished the album, I was more disappointed than I was when I heard MCHG. But since giving it a few more listens, my opinion has greatly improved (Probably because these lyrics require digestion).
I’ve read across the internet that people think this is his best since The Eminem Show. I agree with that, but I think that kind of praise is misleading. If I skipped 3/4 of Encore and 1/2 of Relapse and Recovery, then MMLP2 is better, since I only skipped a little more than 1/4 of it.
I think a major problem with the album, generally lackluster production aside (Where was No I.D.???), is that Eminem has simply forgotten how to make songs. He’s lyrical on all these tracks, even “Berzerk”. But what use is that if the song itself is garbage? You cannot judge an artist on simply their lyrical ability. You just can’t. What got Eminem this far was his ability to craft songs unlike anything Hip-Hop had ever heard before. There is no “Stan”, no “Kim”, not even a “Real Slim Shady” on this album. If this was the Em of ten years ago, he would’ve dissed Rihanna, not made a track with her for the radio.
That being said, if you notice, my complaints about the album come from comparing Eminem with his past accomplishments. And this brings me to another point: calling this MMLP2 was a misstep. I understand the intent, but its hard to objectively score an album when you’re comparing it to one of the greatest of all time.
Therefore, in scoring this, I had to look at what Eminem gave us this time around, and only that. I can already tell I’m going to get a lot of heat from the Em stans, but I think this is a fair review. I was in between two scores, and rounded up. All I can say is, I hope this isn’t his last album.