The Return of Marshall Mathers: The Mad Clown Remains

The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I admit it – I was kinda ticked off when “Rap God” came out in advance of Eminem’s new album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The album’s first single, “Berzerk”, was less than revolutionary but more than enough fun to compensate, a paean to late ‘90s/early 2000s rap with a clever throwback video to match. Here was Eminem reestablishing the ground rules of rap: lyrics front and centre, the defining, make-or-break characteristic of a track. And “Rap God”, a six-minute opus that opens with a shout-out to the days of Slick Rick and Biz Markie and follows Eminem through an almost unbroken, constantly flow-switching, punchline-filled display of pure lyricism, pushes the emphasis on ‘real’ rap even further.

But of course, it also gives us this:

You fags think it’s all a game ‘til I walk a flock of flames
Off a plank, and tell me what in the fuck are you thinking
Little gay-lookin’ boy
So-gay-I-can-barely-say-it-with-a-straight-face-lookin’ boy

So is he still a moron? Sure. That’s always been the joy of Eminem – a clever, engaging personification of straight white male rage, blissfully privilege-blind and built out of some of the best lyrics in the history of rap. When Dr. Dre called us ‘faggots’ in 2011’s “I Need a Doctor”, he came off like an embarrassing grandfather that didn’t know better. When Eminem does it, it’s not with the irony of J. Cole, but with the plain ol’ belief that homophobia is a relevant and foundational aspect of rap. Eminem’s not unique in his use of the word, and ten years ago, even the most consciousness-minded rappers were using it, but it’s frustrating to see the negative aspects of rap culture glorified along with the positive, especially since the song is otherwise so damn good. And while the above lines have already sparked much controversy (controversy and Eminem, who woulda thought?), the inevitable collective of the ‘open-minded’ has also reared its clueless head, expressing joy at Eminem’s cheerful irreverence and lyrics from which nobody’s feelings are safe – as though the bleeding heart types are concerned with feelings and not the high prevalence of LGBT teen suicide.

But perhaps it’s enough to note that the album is enormously irresponsible. In Eminem’s words: “With great power comes absolutely no responsibility / For content.” So there we have it. The album is best enjoyed as it was produced: in a cheerfully context-less mental world where good flow and good lyrics make up for everything.

And guess what? They do just that. This is one of the best damn rap albums of the decade.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 really brings everything together for the Detroit rapper. The somewhat dour ‘maturity’ of Eminem’s more recent albums is used here to temper and support the unexpected, energetic silliness that characterized his earlier work, and the result is a perfect balance. LP 2 is fun and engaging from start to finish, but with a depth and genuine emotion that warrants repeat listens. There’s a method to the mad genius bit now, and an emotional resonance in much of the violence and bitterness. There was always a disturbing veracity to Eminem’s hatred, a sense of the monstrous that titillated youth and, if nothing else, challenged their parents. But the rapper is self-aware where he wasn’t before. Violence that was once zany edges towards nihilistic; animosity that was once cathartic edges towards self-loathing.

Which is not to say that Eminem isn’t as disrespectfully hilarious as always. The mad clown remains, with stories and punchlines that are better than ever. But he invites pathos that would once have seemed beneath him, and the listener is the better off for it. It’s the self-reflection that will keep us coming back to this album, as much as the “l-word” jokes and K-Fed references.

The greatest joy of LP 2 in context is its no-nonsense, no-gimmicks, straight-up rap approach. Aside from a brief, obligatory skit, the album is wall-to-wall Eminem with a few catchy hooks, an oasis of ‘real’ mainstream rap in the era of Macklemore, Nicki Minaj, and The Black Eyed Peas (the one featured rapper on the album is Kendrick Lamar, who still sucks). Eminem has always been one of the great representatives of unadulterated rap culture in the mainstream, and thank goodness for that – unlike “Thrift Shop”, one can imagine an uninitiated listener moving from “Rap God” to other legitimately good rap. Now if he’d just quit saying ‘faggot’ so I could enjoy his work without feeling like an ignorant douche-bro, that’d be perfect.

But either way, Eminem’s still on top.