Rap would be poorer without Eminem in it. His voice is a colourful, powerful, persuasive one – and his career achievements have undeniably brought a greater audience to his music of choice, listeners of a certain age who might not have discovered Nas, Public Enemy or Biggie without the impact of ‘My Name Is’.
But on his first album as a 40-something, and eighth studio collection overall, Marshall Mathers III is muddling his known strengths in such a fashion that the ultimate impression is only half as potent as it might be.
His ear for a great melody underpinning caustic wordplay remains in flashes, but it’s consistently overwhelmed by too many formulaic arrangements leaning on hooks from female vocalists. ‘Legacy’ is a rudimentary rant balanced by a sweet contribution from Polina, and the following ‘Asshole’ follows a comparable format, albeit with the better-known Skylar Grey on ‘feat.’ duty. The less said about the entirely-by-numbers ‘The Monster’, this album’s obligatory collaboration with Rihanna, the better.
‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ is, as its title and artwork so successfully allude to, intended as a continuation of the artist’s most significant album to date. But on the 2000 original, Eminem was calling on the skills of just a handful of producers for his beats – including the Bass Brothers and Dr Dre on the vast majority of tracks.
The result then was a considerably more coherent experience than this sequel, which flirts with some certifiable talent – DJ Khalil and Alex da Kid return from 2010’s ‘Recovery’, and there’s space for regular Lil Wayne producer StreetRunner on opener ‘Bad Guy’ – but comes over as a too-disparate collection of cuts to really gel as an album worth playing from start to finish. And at 78 minutes long, relishing ‘TMMLP2’ in full would take a committed attention even if every other track proved a solid-gold classic of the rapper’s catalogue.
Realistically, there’s little on show here that’d make a greatest-hits collection in another few albums’ time. ‘Berzerk’ (video below) is a tremendously fun flashback to ‘80s and early ‘90s Def Jam artists, sampling ‘License To Ill’-era Beastie Boys beside a lift of Billy Squier’s 1981 single ‘The Stroke’. The Rick Rubin-produced track is about as close as anyone in 2013 will come to bottling the lightning of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’.
Elsewhere, ‘Rap God’ finds Marshall delivering a dizzying stream of rhymes, at speeds enough to have the listener feel they’re moving backwards in time (key line: “I’m an MC still as honest / But as rude and indecent as all hell”). ‘Survival’ – which has soundtracked the launch of Call Of Duty: Ghosts – is a Run-D.M.C.-style rap-rocker which reinforces its maker’s all-or-nothing attitude to his craft: “If I don’t do this music shit I’ll lose my shit.”
These are standouts, sure – but only by comparison to what’s surrounding them here. And some of what else is on offer is truly miserable. ‘Love Game’ samples Wayne Fontana’s ‘The Game Of Love’ and ends up every second as repugnant as when Professor Green ripped ‘Dub Be Good To Me’. Please, it still hurts. Not even the guesting Kendrick Lamar can save this stinker.
And then there’s ‘So Far…’, the existence of which can only be explained if a leading executive at Interscope suggested Eminem put out a track that an X Factor loser could bawl over a live show’s credits. The track samples Joe Walsh’s ‘Life’s Been Good’. It’s so awful that it should be scratched from every physical copy of this album, immediately.
Which leaves us with: some decent-enough songs on an overly long album mostly containing sub-par tracks from an artist capable of much more. Eminem’s a sharp lyricist, a talented MC in touch with his roots (“I’m a product of Rakim, Lakim Shabazz, Tupac, N.W.A.,” he says on ‘Rap God’) who can connect the dots between unrelated subject matters with an incredibly natural fluidity. He shows that enough times here, enough for it to be a crying shame that his ability isn’t supported by consistently quality compositions.
This material, as a whole, simply just doesn’t add up to a collection worth caring about as we did ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’. Career-long themes of murder and revenge are still abundant, and for someone who’s now officially middle-aged a little restraint on the rampant misogyny might’ve gone a long way. In a year that’s witnessed risk-taking rap records from Mac Miller and Earl Sweatshirt, Run The Jewels and Kanye West, playing almost exclusively within predictable parameters has cost Eminem his seat at hip-hop’s highest table.
But then, who’s more dangerous: a king comfortable in his castle, sipping on Private Stock, or a monarch dethroned, thirsty for a return to power? Rap best be watching its back.
Words: Mike Diver
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Stream ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ in full via Deezer, below…