The sequel to one of Eminem’s most revered albums, “The Marshall Mathers LP2” (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope) is the hip-hop version of a classic-rock album. It encapsulates all that was good, bad and just plain tasteless about hip-hop’s middle-age prankster 13 years ago, when he made “The Marshall Mathers LP,” volume one.
Back then, anger underlined Eminem’s outrageous, sometimes comical and frequently horrifying spew. Emerging out of Detroit in the late ‘90s, the MC piled up hits with shock humor that was flagrantly misogynist and homophobic, and prodigious rhyme skills that left the competition in his vapor trail. But his last few albums have sounded tired and even apologetic, as he battled drug addiction and creative inertia.
“The Marshall Mathers LP2” rekindles his ink-black humor and bruising swagger. It revives some of his worst traits as a would-be provocateur. And it reaffirms his prodigious agility with rhymes. In an art form that worships wordplay, Eminem still crunches together syllables, silliness and storytelling flights of ridiculousness with acrobatic skill.
“Rap God” provides a six-minute overview of the new-old Eminem. Musically, it’s nothing special, a static, relatively subdued background beat. The MC’s agitated rhymes carry the track – a pile-up of cultural references, many of them dated. These may be just another way to demonstrate his longevity, as if to say, “Look, I’ve been a ‘rap god’ since Monica Lewinsky and Columbine made headlines.” Yet it’s impossible not to be impressed: His flow picks up speed until it flies, and still he enunciates with machine-gun precision. Sadly, amid this technical virtuosity, he resorts to the type of tired gay-bashing that once made him a pop villain. Now his put-downs suggest an Andrew Dice Clay stand-up routine, desperately trying to get a rise out of someone, anyone.
The album overflows with nods to the bad old days, when Eminem portrayed a screwed-up kid from a broken home who used gays and women as punch lines. It concludes with “Evil Twin,” in which Marshall/Eminem admits that his pyschopathic alter-ego, Slim Shady, will always live inside him.
Whereas the Eminem who made the first “Marshall Mathers LP” in 2000 had enemies everywhere – his parents, his wife, boy bands, pop princesses, and pretty much everybody who wasn’t him – he now acknowledges that he’s running out of targets. So he turns on himself. “Borderline genius who's bored of his lines,” he raps. The album is best when Eminem aims his blade inward, questioning his relevance and mocking the crow’s feet around his eyes, his inability to grow up, the clichés in his warmed-over insults.
The sense that we’ve all been here before, twice, is exacerbated by the tired samples and interpolations. Producer Rick Rubin pumps up the mid-‘80s nostalgia by reprising early Beastie Boys and Billy Squier in “Berzerk,” with Eminem busting out a nasally whine straight from his adolescence. “So Far” recycles Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” guitar riff, to ironic effect: Eminem mocks his own inability to evolve or mature in a way that Walsh’s out-of-touch rock star would’ve appreciated. “Rhyme or Reason” riffs on the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” with another declaration of nihilism: “There is no rhyme or reason for anything.” “Love Game” bites the cheesy 1965 Wayne Fontana hit “The Game of Love.” Since the ‘90s “I’ll be Missing You” heyday of Puff Daddy, has a mainstream rap album been cluttered with as many unimaginative, simplistic samples as this one?
Eminem also recycles his own past: “Legacy” reprises the formula for “The Marshall Mathers LP”-era hit “Stan” with introspective rhymes tied to a female vocal hook, and Rihanna comes back for Round 2 after her 2010 hit with Eminem, “Love the Way you Lie,” on the similarly dark “The Monster.” For any pop star, the past is a final refuge. On “The Marshall Mathers LP2,” Eminem tries to cover up his retreat by doing cartwheels and back-flips with his rhymes.