To be honest, I lost interest in Eminem like 10 years ago when he released “Just Lose It” as the lead single from his fourth album, 2004’s Encore. After releasing two all-time classic LPs, another very good one, and a toweringly great soundtrack single from his own semi-autobiographical film, Eminem‘s pop-culture stock collapsed in an instant. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Eminem retired immediately after that to focus on production and label work — he had exhausted himself creatively — but at the time, everyone was stunned. I remember thinking, “What do you mean you’re leaving? You never even really came back!” Encore sold less than half the amount its two predecessors did, and a lot of those sales were a result of his massive career momentum. It’s impossible, really, to view Encore‘s commercial performance as anything but a disappointment, even if it sold four million copies in the US alone. It yielded no lasting singles of any distinction, either.
Unfortunately for Eminem, his retirement just resulted in inactivity, which led to his life coming unraveled. In 2006 he remarried Kim, who, since 1989, has served as his on-and-off girlfriend, occasional wife (they first married in 1999), mother of their daughter Hailee, and subject of frequent murderous fantasies — through song. The second try at marriage lasted mere months. A prescription drug addiction followed, eventually resulting in a methadone overdose. He would eventually sober up in 2008 and in 2009 release Relapse, a comeback album with a clever, winking title. As with Encore, I basically ignored it. An EP called Refill followed later in the year, and the following year a full-length sequel, Recovery, was released and did quite well; it’s the bestselling digital album of all time.
Unlike with Encore and Relapse, Recovery had some major, major hits that were inescapable: the lead single, “Not Afraid,” and the Rihanna duet “Love the Way You Lie.” It’s too bad these songs were inescapable, actually — I didn’t like either one of them. (To echo Eminem‘s own words: “Sue me.”) And in late 2013, we got The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which may be more direct a sequel in terms of titling than any of Eminem‘s previous albums, which have always been cleverly themed, but The Marshall Mathers LP 2, production-wise, can’t hold a candle to its predecessor from 13.5 years earlier. When it comes to Eminem‘s technical skill as an MC, he’s still unquestionably as good as they come (just listen to “Rap God”), but his artistic sensibility has slipped considerably.
For one thing, the album is far too long. Frankly, at 80 minutes, it’s absolutely exhausting, especially since Eminem delivers nearly all of his vocals in the same loud, shouting, in-your-face manner. Don’t get me wrong, he’s obviously very good at that, but going through long stretches of it gets pretty tedious. And let’s face it: the world of Eminem — more specifically, the world inside Eminem‘s mind, since he pretty much gives us unfiltered access to it — just isn’t as interesting as it was at the outset of his career during the height of the American Culture Wars. He’s still accomplished enough as an artist to make a lot of this album work, but it’s always in bits and pieces; rarely does he pull an entire song together that I don’t have some kind of issue with. Part of the problem is that the songs fall into familiar patterns — and I can sense this despite not having really listened to his last three albums:
1. Eminem goes apeshit/psycho (“Bad Guy,” “Brainless,” “Evil Twin”)
2. Rick Rubin-produced, chopped-up rap-rockers (“Rhyme or Reason,” “Berzerk,” “…So Far”)
3. Syrupy, schmaltzy ballads (“Legacy,” “Stronger Than I Was,” “Headlights”)
4. Singles (“Rap God,” “The Monster,” “Survival”)
Extending the album’s length to an ungodly 79 minutes — 102 minutes with the deluxe edition’s five extra tracks — only highlights how much more formulaic Eminem‘s approach has become, unfortunately. Skill is and never has been an issue, but he’s running short on imagination as he settles more and more comfortably into middle age. The production lacks bass, the songs are missing the musical and lyrical character of his early work — and that’s too bad. Are any of the songs terrible? Well, no. But as I already mentioned, the album doesn’t quite pull together, and neither do the songs themselves, though they contain ideas that were certainly worth pursuing. In the end, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 remains a difficult record to fully evaluate, even if it isn’t a hard one to enjoy.