As if Eminem's task wasn't already daunting enough.
Age 41. Unrelenting demands for excellence. No more drug crutch. A pop-culture world that he concedes might be passing him by.
And then he sets out to revisit "The Marshall Mathers LP," his career's most revered record? Talk about setting a high bar.
If nothing else, "The Marshall Mathers LP 2" is a brazen move, risking the legacy of an album widely viewed as one of hip-hop's all-time classics, with its blend of soul-baring autobiography and edgy fantasy.
So let's get it out of the way: The new album, released Tuesday, is no "Marshall Mathers LP." There are low points ("Legacy," "The Monster") that the original record didn't come near. But it is a work that deserves to be reckoned with on its own terms - terms firmly set by Eminem and, for the most part, deftly navigated. In the long view, it may stand less as a sequel to his 2000 classic than an appendix, a collection of footnotes and reflections through the eyes of an older and wiser artist and man - one still keen to flaunt his formidable technical chops.
The tracks unveiled in recent weeks had hinted at a varied set: Where "Survival" suggested fist-pumping adrenaline, "Berzerk" promptly served up Rick Rubin's classic-rap boom. "Rap God," underlined by an EDM-shaped beat, was a showcase for Eminem's frenetic flow, while the Rihanna collaboration "The Monster" put a pop coating around some stark psychological demons.
All told, "MMLP2" isn't so sonically diverse. Where the original album was organic and spacious, the new one is dense and breathless. It often feels monochromatic - one long fusillade of vocal heat, increasingly burnished with gruffness as Em moves into his 40s. The album isn't exactly teeming with potential hits; more than anything, it seems designed for the die-hard Eminem fan, who will find plenty to explore in the nooks and crannies, the 13-year lyrical links and resolutions.
And that's where "MMLP2" functions best: It's less a musical successor than a thematic one, a guess-who's-back journey that finds him taking stock, 13 years on. There are retro references aplenty - including nods to some of his own famous lines and even sound effects - and while the guest list is very much of-the-moment (Kendrick Lamar, Nate Ruess, Rihanna), the mood is largely retrospective.
It's an album of reconciliation, quite literally in the case of "Headlights," as he extends an apology and olive branch to his long-maligned mom. "Did I take it too far?" he answers by way of asking, adding that he now cringes at his 2002 attack song "Cleanin' Out My Closet."
"Evil Twin" finds him coming to grips with - or owning up to - his Slim Shady alter ego: "We are the same," he concedes at song's end, after years of "don't blame me, blame him" deflections.
What helped define "MMLP" was something we'd not often heard in hip-hop: vulnerability. Self-aware, self-deprecating, self-questioning - they were the traits that made Eminem such an unconventional and compelling figure in a genre traditionally fueled by its braggadocio.
They're part of the fabric throughout "MMLP2," nowhere more vividly than the intense, intricate drama of "Bad Guy," the 7-minute maelstrom that opens the album. Ostensibly a follow-up to "Stan," where he'd famously grappled with fame and fan expectations, it's ultimately a vehicle for Eminem to lay out some of his deepest self-doubts - a "tragic portrait of an artist tortured, trapped in his own drawings," as he raps.
The antidote to his insecurities, of course, has always been a display of sheer skill, and "MMLP2" is saturated with it, to the point that the technical wizardry sometimes seems like a fallback. All of the showy virtuoso trademarks are turned up to 11 - the internal rhymes, complex rhythmic precision, flexible cadences, couplets-within-couplets, hit-and-run puns. He even pulls off a few lines of Yoda syntax in "Rhyme or Reason," as the Zombies' "Time of the Season" slinks underneath.
The album is worth multiple listens because revelations turn up in inconspicuous spots. "So Far," a seemingly fun throwaway track set to music from Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," is actually one of the album's most telling, a glimpse at Em's growing comfort as a middle-aged suburbanite with pedestrian tastes. Scratching his head over Facebook and "these kids with their camera cell phones," he cracks that he has just played Comerica Park with Jay-Z, and "I'm hiding in Kroger buying groceries."
It's not the first place on the album where the rapper admits that he just might be falling out of touch, unapologetic as he punnily declares: "Ain't no more 'N Sync / Now I'm all out of wack."
He also steps back to pay a debt to his roots, in perhaps his most flowery hometown homage yet:
"Maybe that's why I can't leave Detroit / It's the motivation that keeps me going / This is the inspiration I need / I can never turn my back on a city that made me."
'The Marshall Mathers LP 2'
Three stars out of four stars, in stores Tuesday.
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