By now, you should have been served notice that Eminem is back. Over the weekend he both managed to win an award from YouTube and to be criticized for a lip-synced performance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Needless to say, the dichotomy is something that the Detroit rhymer probably relishes, considering that it comes on the eve of the release of his seventh studio album Marshall Mathers LP 2 (abbreviated as MMLP2 for hash-tag purposes).
The most glaring if not necessarily egregious omission on MMLP2 is the absence of Dr. Dre, the leader of Aftermath, who not only signed and developed Eminem but along with Pittsburgh’s Mel-Man produced a lion’s share of the tracks on the original Marshall Mathers LP released in 2000. The only Aftermath-affiliated production presence on the album is DJ Khalil and his group the New Royales, who are credited for composing and producing “Survival,” the second single performed on SNL after the Rick Rubin-produced “Berzerk.”
MMLP2 leads with the S1- and M-Phazes-produced “Bad Guy,” which ironically bears the hallmarks of Eminem’s own production, replete with squeaky sounds and jagged raps. Female vocalist Sarah Jaffe does well to smooth out the creepy instrumental and Eminem’s raps, well but the rapper’s dense wordplay requires a trained ear to discern lyrics, which address his inner demons on the second verse. His stop-and-go style is ever-present, all the way through the end of the song, where he switches in-and-out of his flow on “Stan” and the current track. In terms of sheer technical prowess, Eminem quickly reminds listeners why he’s often perched atop best-rapper lists.
“Rhyme and Reason” follows the 7-minute “Bad Guy” – well, there’s a “Parking Lot (Skit)” sans the fictional manager – and there is decidedly more bass and melody here. In fact, Eminem sings and ad libs throughout the track, which samples The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and provides a nice contrast of staccato rhymes against a soulful instrumental. The track is finished off nicely with various sound effects courtesy of Rick Rubin.
The direction of MMLP2 is more rock ‘n roll and less hip-hop, and it appears to be a concerted effort, cultivated out of sessions at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu, CA. This concept is more or less registered with the jagged rock guitar-driven “Survival,” which carries on like an anthem – not quite “Lose Yourself” but up there. Other tracks on MMLP2 have similar levity but follow the rap verse/female vocalist chorus formula: “Legacy” with Polina, “A**hole” with Skylar Grey, “The Monster” with Rihanna.
On “Rap God,” Eminem gets fiercely introspective and puts on a visceral rapper clinic. A lyric sheet is mandatory if you want to grasp every bar, but what is discernible is that he refers to himself and to old school rapper Lakim Shabazz, among many others, on this stream-of-consciousness track. The raps are delivered at unbelievable speed, sure to leave plenty of mouths agape – including collaborator Kendrick Lamar, who appears on “Love Game” – and to whom Eminem indirectly refers with the last line on “Rap God”: “Why be a king when you can be a god?” (So much for Kendrick’s supremacy.)
Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP2 is a jagged and frenetic lyrical exercise. The rapper is his usual abrasive self, an emcee’s emcee who puts on a showcase that is virtually impossible to imitate and all but sets a rap benchmark, giving fellow emcees something to aspire to. While the mastery of multi-syllabic flow is uncanny, the delivery overshadows the layers of meaning beneath, which will be discovered only after repeated listens.
The album is advanced, not for the faint or those who want their rap music to be easily digested. However, Without Dr. Dre behind the boards, MMLP2 is less polished, meaning it ultimately amounts to a raw display of the sheer talent that has made its maker rap’s wunderkind.