The “2” in the title of Eminem’s latest is almost nonsensically desperate. In 2000, the kid born Marshall Mathers vented his deepest frustrations with the world and became the world’s greatest rapper. In contrast to the human cartoon he played on The Slim Shady LP the year before, The Marshall Mathers LP he turned young-white-disenfranchised-dude anger into something like poetry, probing his soul for any shred of humanity and plumbing his tense relationship with his own fans. “Stan” was the standout, of course, but songs like “Kill You” and “The Real Slim Shady” showed just how mighty his flow was and just how deep his self-hatred.
Thirteen years later, Eminem remains eminently popular, but it’s clear he no longer holds the same vaunted spot in pop culture or even in rap music. He’s been overtaken by emcees with more innovative rhymes (Lil Wayne), sharper storytelling (Kendrick Lamar), greater charisma (Danny Brown) and more incisive shock value (Odd Future). In other words, Mathers is no longer the vanguard; he’s the old school. His last few albums, starting around 2004’s uneven Encore, have all shown a man who had conquered the world but wasn’t sure what to do next. Even 2009’s Relapse, on which he pondered his own drug addiction, Eminem sounded detached—never quite present even as he perpetuated the same beefs and boasts. Either he didn’t want to look too intently inward or he simply couldn’t.
Nostalgia is the natural state of the old school, so rather than look forward, Eminem is content to gaze backwards, in particular at the album that represents the height of everything: fame, relevance, ability. It’s almost unfair to compare the sequel with the original. MMLP2 isn’t The Empire Strikes Back. Think more along the lines of The Phantom Menace. On opener “Bad Guy,” he raps (again) about premeditated murder and wallows in the grisly details: picking out the right knife, finding the back door unlocked, stowing the body in trunk. SPOILER ALERT: Eminem isn’t rapping as Eminem, but as an Eminem fan out for revenge on his hero. It’s an intriguing twist—Stan acting out his own “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde”—but as the song enters its seventh minute, Em sheds the disguise and starts rapping his press release. He’s the dark side of our subconscious, our collective id run amok. Yawn.
Besides, is there anyone left who feels so connected to Mathers’ persona that they’d kill him? Or even get a tattoo for him? To put it a different way, a lot of shit has gone down since Eminem performed that duet with Elton John. The world has changed dramatically, yet Eminem remains pretty much the same as he ever was. He still slings the same verses, still vents the same spleen, still acts the spoiled child, still profiteers from majority angst. And he’s finally content to play the victim, whether literally in “Bad Guy” or figuratively on just about every other song. Ostensibly from the perspective of a high school outcast, “Legacy” seems like the most baffling anti-bullying anthem imaginable, at least until you realize it’s about how you shouldn’t bully Eminem. That complaint is about as predictable as letting Rihanna sing the hook.
MMLP2 courts relevance cheaply; but wait a minute, Eminem is a great rapper. He’s got a sophisticated delivery and an intricate way of dividing and subdividing words into shards and syllables sharp enough to cut a listener. That hasn’t changed either, but technical proficiency is overrated. Taste has to account for something, which means Eminem isn’t the Jimi Hendrix of hip hop. Instead, he’s in danger of becoming Yngwie Malmsteen: incredibly agile yet musically soulless. He says a lot of nothing on MMLP2, but I guess you can admire the way he says it. On the other hand, he almost sounds human when he falls on his face. “Rhyme Or Reason” samples The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and features Eminem caterwauling the chorus (at least he didn’t AutoTune), yet somehow the song turns out worse than that description indicates.
It’s impossible to take Em seriously on MMLP2, not because he’s a bitchy multi-millionaire but because he just doesn’t sound invested anymore. Whether he’s projecting disingenuous vulnerability on “Stronger Than I Was” or sampling Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders on “Love Game” (where he’s handily upstaged by Kendrick Lamar), there’s no fire here. There’s no sense of catharsis or even, god forbid, fun. Every moment is steeped in the same rage he’s been peddling for too long. And perhaps that’s his one legit complaint: Em’s backed himself into a corner where he must continually cultivate that anger. His is a dark, dank, dire world, but it’s one of his own devising.