Does the world really need to revisit the dark, hellish world of Marshall Mathers? That’s the major question posed by Eminem’s sequel to the album that catapulted him to instant legend status back in 1999, even more pressing than the question about whether he made Marshall Mathers 2 for a quick cash-out. It becomes obvious after the first track that Eminem isn’t coasting on his reputation, and has created what is easily the most deeply cutting of his albums. The first track, “Bad Guy”, makes it painfully obvious how much emotional bloodletting is going to happen on the album – by mirroring the structures of past violent odes like “Kim” and “Stan”, and borrowing themes and lyrics from “My Name Is”, Eminem crafts what sounds like yet another wildly offensive Slim Shady escapade… until it becomes obvious that Shady has become legitimately insane, and half of the song devolves into the lyrical equivalent of plumbing the depths of madness. And like “Stan”, the result is a masterful gut punch. The gut punches don’t ever relent, but none of them quite reach the opener’s dizzying heights.
This is easily one of the most unpleasant albums I’ve ever heard, in terms of content. Eminem easily slides back into the pitch-dark world of Slim Shady and The Marshall Mathers LP, but what makes Marshall Mathers 2 so unpleasant is that it occupies a terrifying place, torn between being a full-fledged endorsement of hypermasculine nihilism (best exemplified by the lyric “There ain’t no rhyme or no reason for nothing”, off “Rhyme and Reason”) and an incredibly graphic condemnations of said nihilism. Which side Mathers comes down on is very muddled – on one hand, there’s “Rap God”, which many commentators have noted is incredibly homophobic in nature, even as Eminem evokes the bisexual god Loki as a symbol of his tortured soul. “Rap God” has no balance at all, presenting Eminem as the ur-example of rap, the undisputed leader of the field, making his use of terms like “faggot” and alluding to violence against gay men a fairly obvious example of discriminatory dominance. (Similarly, there’s the album ender, “Evil Twin”, which is pointlessly misogynistic and homophobic, and ends the album with an incredibly lame whimper.) On the other hand, there’s “Asshole”, a song that sees Mathers going to a familiar well – his relationship with fame – and has him conclude that his lack of care towards his attitude might be a minute cause of society itself getting more predisposed to his brand of violence and viciousness. Coupled with Skylar Gray intoning over and over again that Mathers is nothing more than an asshole, it’s obvious that Mathers at least understands the power of his words. That’s what makes so much of the album maddening – descent into darkness or no, this is clearly an artist who understands what he’s doing with his words and his music.
In addition to this tonal mishmash, there are quite a few songs that need reworking to be stronger. “So Far…” cannot figure out if it wants to be a five-minute-long freeform, formless rap, or if it wants to, again, borrow from Eminem’s back catalogue – the most exciting moment in the song is a brief flashback to “My Name Is” and only serves to highlight how weak this particular track is. Sampling Joe Walsh does him no favors, either. A track with a similar length problem is “Love Game”, which is saved by some incredible sparring between Kendrick Lamaar and Mathers. “Stronger Than I Was” should’ve been cut from the album wholesale, since most of it is Eminem singing tunelessly. (I guess I can applaud the lack of Auto-Tune in the song, but he couldn’t carry a tune in an oil tanker, much less a bucket.) Pretty much all of the songs could do without Mathers’ “trademark” disses, as half of them are completely irrelevant and many aren’t incredibly clever.
Every so often, another moment of greatness emerges from the weird slog. “Headlights” is the one song where the tension between hypermasculinity and thoughtfulness In speaking to his mother, not only does Mathers apologize for verbally eviscerating her in very public fashion, but he delves deeply into his personal darkness. Both Mathers and his mother become the source and the victim of a very public feud, and, looking back, Nate Ruess’ feature really drives the point home with his introductory verse: “Mom, I know I let you down/And though you say the days are happy/Why is the power off, and I’m fucked up?” On the total opposite end of the spectrum, Mathers really captured something in “Berzerk”, which taps into rough hard rock beats and made a fantastically heavy-sounding, but lyrically bouncy, headbanging track. It’s the closest Mathers gets to recreating the Slim Shady ethos of old, with a refreshing devil-may-care attitude. Smartly, “Berzerk” is in the middle of the album, a breather from all the doom, gloom, and insanity; unfortunately, it’s at about this point where the album, aside from “Headlights”, gets much less intense, and loses a lot of its narrative thrust.
This is an incredibly difficult album to categorize. There are so many things maddening about it – Mathers is seemingly convinced that things that were only marginally okay to say in 1999 have remained that way, yet he also works incredibly hard to subvert and augment his older work with perspective and maturity. He projects both alpha male and thoughtful atoner simultaneously, and these two things, at least in his case, rarely go together in a way that doesn’t feel forced or muddled. Mathers still has the most brilliant flow of any rapper I’ve ever heard, a conversational lilt that makes it so easy to fall in love with his music… and then he does everything in his power to lose you. It’s a dynamic that, while it can create some jaw-dropping music, can’t sustain this whole album. – Haley Anne
[author ]Haley was basically born and raised as a music lover, a writer, and someone with generally eclectic tastes. A classically trained opera singer, she recently got her Bachelors in Communications, Culture, and Public Affairs from Long Beach, after writing a very long screed on hypermasculinity in emo music. She was totally a member of the Black Parade in high school, and her favorite band is still Fall Out Boy. [/author]