To my parents’ horror, I discovered Eminem at age twelve when my uncle gave me a copy of Encore for my birthday. I was enchanted; I loved the tenderness of ‘Mockingbird’ and the humor of ‘Puke,’ and the unbridled rage and violence that riddled the album were more visceral and real than any emotions I had ever heard in music. There was something primal about the lyrics that I instinctively believed. It was a peculiar time to be introduced to Eminem; Encore came out in 2004, two years after Eminem’s peak album, The Eminem Show (2002), and was supposedly the first album he recorded while sober, and was his first album to be reviewed harshly by critics. I didn’t know any of that; to me, Eminem was, both in terms of technique and storytelling ability, the best rapper I had ever heard.
Since then, I have experienced Eminem’s past and present music simultaneously; for every new album, there were old ones to find, too. It wasn’t long before I heard The Eminem Show, and I was blown away by his lyricism, honesty, and storytelling ability. The album opened with “White America,” a catchy, rhyme-heavy attack on his critics, and featured intense pump-up songs like “Soldier” and “When the Music Stops,” as well as emotional confessions like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “Hailie’s Song.”
In 2009, Eminem released Relapse, his long-awaited return to rapping after his best friend’s death, a return to drugs, and struggling with weight problems. Having now heard Eminem at the peak of his career, I was disappointed. While on a technical level, many songs on Relapse were quite good, and the album featured two of my favorite songs, “Stay Wide Awake” and “Déjà Vu,” it felt like Eminem had lost the confidence he’d once had. It seemed like he was trying to hard to achieve the ease of his earlier albums and that he was no longer sure he could live up to his past success.
Disheartened, I turned back to Eminem’s past, and found the emotional turmoil of The Marshall Mathers LP (2001), which many critics consider his best album. Eminem’s confusion about his newfound stardom comes through on tracks like “Marshall Mathers,” as well as the raw anger, in tracks like “Kim,” that had attracted me to Encore. As with The Eminem Show, the primality of the emotions on the album made each song believable. Eminem was offensive, angry, and a bad role model, but he was honest.
I eagerly awaited Eminem’s next album, Recovery (2010), but was once again disappointed; though it had a few good songs, like “25 to Life,” the album felt empty. The rhymes were less effortless, the messages less subtle, and the emotions less real. Though I loved the song “Not Afraid” the first time I heard it, after a few more listens it seemed like Eminem was trying to convince himself he hadn’t lost something in his music and that he was just as good as he used to be.
It was only a few months ago that I listened to the entirety of the Slim Shady LP (2000), and I think it is Eminem’s most impressive album. Eminem channels his immense pain and anger through the desperate, raspy voice of Slim Shady, and every word of the album seems like Eminem is divulging secret parts of himself. The album is a window into his twisted, aching mind.
A few weeks ago, Eminem released the Marshall Mathers LP2. Despite the iTunes Editors’ note that the album is “classic Eminem…an appropriately provocative sequel to Eminem’s groundbreaking 2000 release. Huge, hard-hitting singles like “Survival” and “Rap Go”’ make it one of the artist’s most uncompromising albums to date,” I think it is the most disappointing album Eminem has released so far. As with “Not Afraid,” the first time I heard “Rap God,” I loved it, but after listening a few more times, I was completely turned off. Though the rhyming technique Eminem employs is still unparalleled, nothing about the song rings true. Eminem—known for taking clever shots at rappers and celebrities—makes jokes about people no one really cares about, from Ray J to Wocka-Flocka. Whereas Eminem’s use of curses and slurs on the Slim Shady LP comes off as surprising and genuine (not that I condone it), the homophobic lines in “Rap God” make it seem like he is being offensive just because he feels he has to. Furthermore, even in Relapse and Recovery, Eminem retained his ability to tell a cohesive story, but “Rap God” just seems like pointless rambling that Eminem struggles to tie together. Most striking, though, is the refrain, “I’m beginning to feel like a rap god.” Eminem has been a rap god since The Eminem Show, if not The Slim Shady LP. Who is he trying to convince? Though he says it in a confident voice, it seems like Eminem is afraid that people are going to forget how good he once was. At the height of his career, though, he never had to remind listeners of his skill.
The problems in “Rap God” are endemic throughout the album. Many of the rhymes are weak, the puns and jokes are poor, and several of the songs are non-cohesive babbling. Those songs that do manage to tell a story often reference earlier hits; “Bad Guy,” is intended as a sequel to his earlier song, “Stan.” All this does, however, is remind listeners how much more technically sound, sonically pleasing, clever, and coherent his earlier works were. Pretty much every song on the album feels like he has done it better before. The Marshall Mathers LP2 seems like an attempt to recycle elements of his earlier successes that he has grown out of. For example, though Eminem’s voice on most of the tracks is still raspy and angry, few of the lyrics actually seem angry. It seems like he using his angry voice because he doesn’t have any other voice to use, even if the content behind it is gone. Whereas the desperation in the Slim Shady LP came off as part of Eminem’s act, all of his acts on the Marshall Mathers LP2 come off as desperate.
This is reflected in how stuffed the songs are with self-references and tributes to Eminem’s own greatness. This seems to be par for the course for once-great rappers trying to convince their fan bases, and themselves, that they are better than ever by making their album titles more and more grandiose; earlier this year, Jay-Z released Magna Carta… Holy Grail (i.e. Jay-Z’s verses are as important as the onset of constitutional monarchy as well as ancient Christianity) and Kanye West released Yeezus (i.e. Christmas is a celebration of Kanye’s birthday.) Perhaps what is most interesting about the Marshall Mathers LP2 is that, instead of having a similar grandeur, the album’s title hearkens back to the beginning of Eminem’s success. Eminem does not want to convince the world that he’s gotten better. He just wants us to believe that he hasn’t lost what he once had; that he didn’t lose his skill when he sobered up; that he still has something to say. Ultimately, the Marshall Mathers LP2 is one hour and thirty-nine minutes of confusion. It is one last prayer to a rap god that falls on long-deaf ears. It is twenty songs, and neither he nor I believe any of them.