It's been such a long time since the real Slim Shady stood up that the general consensus seems to be he never will again. The last few years have proven as much with the disastrous Relapse and distinctly average Recovery exposing the loss of spark and energy that created the persona responsible for two of the greatest albums in hip-hop history. As tough as it is to swallow, the fact is we are never going to experience the like of Eminem's original trio of releases again, and to wallow in his previous success would only totally destroy your enjoyment of the rapper these days. So is it possible for Eminem to ever repeat his success? Absolutely not. But is Eminem still capable of creating great rap music? Well, that's a different question, and one that is set to be resolved near definitively with The Marshall Mathers LP 2, an album that sees Em attempting to find old form in his past self by revisiting his arguably greatest album and drawing from those same themes, images and sometimes even lines.
''Bad Guy'' gets LP2 underway in style with a menacing continuation of ''Stan'' that sees the protagonists little brother all grown up and out for revenge, before another LP1 classic ''Criminal'' is picked up in the short skit ''Parking Lot'', with Em clearly eager to remind his audience of past glories and use them to his advantage. It's perhaps a clever strategy, because the first time the rapper strays from the LP1 sound on ''Rhyme Or Reason'' he's found on uneven territory, delivering exciting, hate fuelled verses toward his absent father that are ultimately compromised by a clumsily executed sample which falls flat on its face at the hook. In contrast, ''So Much Better'' is the first song on the album that sounds as though it actually could have been lifted from the original album, with an old school beat and message that make it a definite highlight. Another midsection standout is the emotive ''Legacy'', a passionate meditation on Mather's influence on the rap world that almost fools you into believing that LP2 is about to surge into true form, but before you get carried away there's a series of unfortunate tracks set to cloud your mind with doubts again.
''Survival'' is another questionable production choice that interferes with Em's delivery skills, making for a strange single alongside the equally weak ''Bezerk'', two easily passable songs in the context of the overall tracklist. While he may feel differently himself, the use of guitars to back up the rapper is simply not a good fit. ''Asshole'' is perhaps the epitome of LP2's mediocrity, with a frankly annoying hook from Skylar Grey, a woefully chosen guest, which recalls past low points. All of the above examples point to the most frustrating element at the heart of this record; the fact that so many tracks feature Eminem rapping his most passionate verses in years, but over awkward, average and unsuitable backgrounds.
When things are going okay music wise, LP2 is capable of producing stronger tracks; ''Brainless'' is the exact type of rap you wish Eminem could lay down 14 times in a row nowadays, proving alongside ''So Much Better'', that while repeating stories and lines is a hit and miss process, reverting to production basics is a foolproof success. There are some nice backing tracks aside from typical Dre style beats however, with ''Stronger Than I Was'' providing a gentle piano and soft marching drums to ease the listener into Eminem's tale of Kim's reaction to her shockingly violent eponymous track on LP1. Similarly accessible is Em's reunion with Rihanna on ''The Monster'', a collaboration that makes financial sense considering the outrageous popularity of ''Love The Way You Lie'', both a commercial and critical success for the pair in 2010. While this sounds just as chart ready, it's severely lacking in the depth of meaning that made its predecessor such a triumph, and comes off as one for the label executives or for casual fans of both artists.
If there's one aspect of Eminem's ability left that can go completely unquestioned however, it's technical skill, which he exhibits in spades on album centerpiece ''Rap God'', dropping ryhmes in breackneck speed throughout, in particular during an outrageous midsection which boasts a stunning 6 per second word count, proving Mathers worthy of his self appointed title. It's roughly this far into the record 14 tracks that you begin to realize LP2 is never going to hit a run of form; you can't name three faultless songs in a row. Unlike its predecessor which mercilessly grabbed hold and never let go, the only consistent thing about 2 is its inconsistency- you can nearly see a pattern of hit, miss and hit all the way to the finalale.
''So Far'' is another better moment, featuring Em rapping playfully over a selection of instrumentals, briefly including some familiar classic samples, while the long awaited collaboration betweek Em and Kendrick on ''Love Game'' is shocking, but for reasons you may not expect. A strangely goofy track that borders on the absurd at times, this may be an enjoyable, eccentric beat on the surface but the sad fact is that it misuses the talents of both artists and Kendrick has not benefitted from associating with Mathers at this point, with ''Love Game'' easily the weakest output from the young rapper in the last 2 years. The presence of Nate Ruess, the excruciatingly whiny frontman of that fun., is enough of a reason to avoid ''Headlights'', but if nothing else at least Em has something new to say about his Mother, documenting his reconciliation with her rather than abusing her for a change. Still it's another candidate for the worst song on the album and again this is due to a poorly selected guest. ''Evil Twin'' brings LP2 to a close on a strong note, finding Em in a braggadocio mood as he spits lines like ''Fuck top five, bitch, I'm top four/And that includes Biggie and Pac, whore, and I got an Evil Twin/So who the fuck do you think that third and that fourth spot's for''.
And so another decidedly uneven journey with Marshall Mathers comes to an end. Ultimately, it's probably true that this is the rappers best record since he returned in 2009, but that's a near meaningless statement in reality; all it goes to show is how disappointing Mathers has been the past 4 years. You'd be forgiven for believing that the title of this album is a brave choice, one that invites comparison with his earlier undisputed classic, but the sad truth is that Eminem just needed to give his fans a reason to listen. Perhaps he may be waning in power but he's no fool; Mathers is acutely aware of the fact that he can't recapture lightening in a bottle, and so the next best thing he can do is to remind listeners why they loved him in the first place. It's maybe somewhat understandable then that reactions to LP2 have been a tad exaggerated; nostalgia is a strong aphrodisiac.
In a year when Eminem has been effortlessly brushed aside by better releases from those he helped create (Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler The Creator, Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Chance The Rapper), you have to wonder how many more times he's going to hurt his reputation by giving us further sub-par albums. The only way is downward from here; it seems an impossibility that Eminem will ever create another album worthy of Slim Shady, and the best course of action, at least for this fan, is to call time on a career that has revolutionized rap music and allow us to bask in the legacy of the one of hip-hop's greatest artists, rather than continue to taint it with further mediocrity.
Review by Andrew Lambert