Show, don’t tell. Those are the sacred words pounded into every student’s head countless times by their English teachers. Useful words to live by since they’re the difference between taking the audience on a vividly colorful journey of emotion and telling a shrink how terribly your single mother raised you.
And such is the plight of Eminem’s eighth studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Immediately, by the titular strength alone, comparisons arise to his most acclaimed project. But it’s not a sequel at all, instead intended to be a revisitation of the content of the original. He succeeds in flexing his lyrical muscles, but unfortunately MMLP2‘s bland, forced nature ultimately fails to recapture the magic and reignite the spark that once was.
1. Country influence is littered throughout.
For better and for worse, there’s country music overlaid throughout much of the second half of the album.
For better, “Love Game,” which was almost universally panned upon initial release, winds up becoming one of the stronger songs of the album. It’s like an old western, narrated through rap. And despite Marshall’s relative mediocrity, Kendrick Lamar steps in and carries the record on his shoulders. It’s clever, it’s creative and it’s definitely something like a breath of fresh air, amidst an otherwise musty MMLP2.
For worse, Eminem spends almost the entirety of “Stronger Than I Was” singing in a manner that effectively debunks every bit of momentum built by the “Rap God”/”Brainless” one-two punch. Even strictly in terms of sequencing, it’s misplaced. It’s one of the most skippable and SMH-worthy songs from the project. Shady can’t sing, Shady can harmonize. There’s a difference. Harmonizing will carry hooks and bridges, but not entire songs.
2. “Rap God” is Eminem’s “Control.”
Speaking simply on a technical level, this is an absolutely perfect record. Hell, it may even be the runaway best song of MMLP2. Marshall sounds hungry, like he actually cares for a fleeting moment, and for six minutes he wants the throne back, mowing down anyone who stands in the way. It’s a statement track and his peers are surely hearing him loud and clear.
The way he dips in and out of double-, triple-, and quadruple-time flow (you lose track after a while) is jaw-dropping. Yes, it’s not a complete record in that it’s structured more like a freestyle than a song (with hooks and bridges, etc.), but there’s something here that’s missing from most of the album: energy. Em’s passion to reclaim his spot atop the mountain one last time is tangible and there for any listener to grok.
3. Em finally stops yelling…
…but now it’s even worse: he sounds bored. He babbles. For the vast majority of The MMLP2, Eminem just sounds like he’s giving a talk. There’s no varying his inflection, no playfulness and no creativity. Right from the jump, as heard on “Bad Guy,” he begins lecturing and doesn’t stop until half the album is over. Or he spits as Yoda (for four bars on “Rhyme Or Reason”), which might be worse than sounding bored.
4. He shows some indication of growing up, but doesn’t quite dive all the way into it.
Eminem isn’t quite the rebel he once was, and that’s a good thing because it would’ve been corny. Additionally, he seems to be over Kim. Where she was a huge focus of the original, here she’s barely noticeable. The nostalgic women-hate is definitely scattered throughout, but he’s no longer adopting the serial killer character. Again, another great decision: the concept of a 40-some rapper/father/recovering addict/mass murderer is a bit harder to make believable.
But despite these positive steps, he refuses to go into detail. Instead, he’s goofy and sometimes just awkward (“Asshole”). It would have been nice to see him expand on a few different perspectives, his thoughts on his world in 2013 and real issues he’s been going through (no, whining about the perils of fame doesn’t count). He’s a father with a high-school daughter. Certainly his situation isn’t a cakewalk. The material is right there, but it’s been largely ignored.
5. The emotional songs aren’t moving anymore.
Remember when you heard “Sing For The Moment” and “Cleaning Out My Closet”? When Eminem was introspective, we were thoughtful. When he was depressed, we were sullen. And when he was angry, we were downright enraged. But here it’s like listening to him in a college lecture hall, reading off of a PowerPoint.
Case in point: “Headlights” should have been so much better than what it was. Marshall uses the record to apologize to his mother for his not realizing the disadvantages of being a single mother and publicly slaughtering her image. Instead of intricately painting a picture about his emotional epiphany, “Headlights” comes off as Eminem just telling the audience what happened. It had the potential to wrap up years of his discography dedicated to hating his mother, but instead it’s just another speech that gets a moment’s reaction before losing the listener altogether. The spark that captivates and enthralls his audience is nowhere to be found.