Since releasing my year-end list of my favorite albums of 2013, I’ve gotten into two different arguments with friends about separate albums. One friend gave an impassioned plea for me to reconsider Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, the other vehemently disagreed with my ranking of Yeezus. Today we focus on Eminem and save Yeezy for the near-future.
There are few moments in life, not involving death, disease or bodily injury to yourself or others, that prove to be more traumatizing than those when you realize, “[insert obscenity of choice], I’m old.” There are, of course, the increasing physical limitations of age – such as the (in)ability to eat or drink without consequence, or one’s precipitous decline in athletic prowess – which can trigger this realization as well, but those feel like more natural occurrences insofar that they’re beyond your own control. What I’m talking about are particular social or cultural settings which, more than anything else, just make you feel old.
For example: I went on a date last year with a girl who – it turns out – was twenty years old (I wasn’t aware of this fact at the time). This young woman’s inability to drink, however, wasn’t what made me feel old. What elicited the “Fuck, I’m old,” reaction, was her response to a joke I made about Linda Tripp (the context of this “joke” is no longer clear), which was vaguely similar to that of my dog when I ask her to take out the trash. It’s not that I was necessarily expecting to score a laugh from a quip about a Pentagon staffer who revealed Monica Lewinsky’s secret affair with President Clinton to Kenneth Starr in 1998 (she also didn’t know who he was), it’s that, upon explaining who Linda Tripp was, and when all of this happened (at her request), she noted that she was probably in kindergarten during the Lewinsky scandal.* That shit makes you feel old…and a little weird.
*All of which makes me wonder whether or not this girl understood the Monica Lewinsky reference on Beyonce’s “Partition.”
One more example (not that you asked): I attended a Postal Service concert in Brooklyn this past summer with some friends, mostly for sake of nostalgia. All things considered, it was a pretty decent show when you realize that Give Up was their only album, it was released in 2003, and it contained all of ten tracks. And, for whatever little it’s worth, there seemed to be a good number of twenty-somethings in attendance as well. The majority of the crowd, however, seemed to skew towards high school-levels of young; so young that, while on line for the opportunity to purchase a round of overpriced Sixpoint beers for my friends and I, two teenage girls approached me, wondering if I’d be willing to buy them a pair of even more egregiously marked domestic light beers (I, obviously, declined).
There’s something odd about realizing that you’re likely one of the oldest people, who isn’t a parent, at a concert for a band that hasn’t released a record in ten years. Give Up was probably one of the most important records of my late-teens; the emotions expressed on the album were the sorts that I could relate to at that age, so it was only natural for my younger self to gravitate toward the band and their genre. And, while it would make sense for people my age to attend a Postal Service reunion tour in 2013, I left the show feeling like the creepy older guy at the Twilight premiere. Only I realized that I wasn’t the creepy older guy at the Postal Service show, Ben Gibbard was the creepy older guy at the Postal Service show: he’s thirty-seven years old and performing music that fifteen year olds can relate to. (All credit for this goes to the hilarious Hari Kondabolu who has a terrific stand-up bit about attending a Weezer concert at 27.)
After a certain age, many records which may have, at one time, held great significance in our lives, no longer resonate. It’s not that we’ve matured beyond the point of mindless entertainment – after all, the Lonely Island released one of the most enjoyable albums of the year – it’s that the specific themes of anger and sorrow inherent in the types of music most adolescent males listen to aren’t relevant to the lives of adults with real-world responsibilities. Listening, today, to the discographies of groups such as the Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Brand New or even The Smiths serves only as an aural portal to our youths – their lyrics, for as much as we may have once loved their music, have little practical application for anyone over the age of twenty-two (if not younger).
The same can be said for much Eminem’s catalog, including his most recent release, the “sequel” to his wildly popular Marshall Mathers LP. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (which shall henceforth be referred to as MMLP2) rehashes many of the same themes as its predecessor – mommy issues (“Brianless”), daddy issues (“Rhyme or Reason”), shitty ex-girlfriends (“So Much Better”), self-deprication and the overall dickishness of Mr. Mathers (“Asshole”) – but with a receding ability to generate forceful verses or signature hooks. Even on a track such as “Rap God,” which is essentially a six minute showcase of Eminem’s technical prowess (including a fifteen second clip with 97 total words), the lyrics are such a barrage of continual homophobic slurs* that it’s impossible to rap along with, even if one were able to keep up with his flow (which, this author can attest to, you probably cannot).
*How many mainstream rappers still casually use “fag” or its derivatives? This seems indefensible.
If MMLP2 has any highlights, the foremost has to be the ubiquitous, Rihanna-featuring “The Monster,” on which her addictive chorus saves the audience from Eminem’s otherwise weak verses.* “Love Game,” which features Kendrick Lamar (as well as a good deal of sexism) and samples the Mindbenders’ “The Game of Love,” sounds so unlike the two that it actually works.
*If Rihanna wasn’t also one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, she could probably carve out a nice career as the new Nate Dogg. Since about 2008, it’s seems as if a Rihanna hook has been a rite of passage for every hip-hop star in the same way that a Nate Dogg track was for a ten year period starting in 1994. If, for whatever reason, she decided to give up her solo career, she’d have a pretty great fallback option.
Despite these highlights and Eminem’s masterful technique, it’s slightly discomfiting to listen to any forty-one year old man complain about his broken childhood, let alone one doing so for the umpteenth time in the public spotlight. While Relapse and Recovery weren’t up to the standards of his early trilogy of albums (The Slim Shady LP, MMLP, and The Eminem Show) for so many different reasons, they at least covered newer material, exposing a side of Eminem’s life that we hadn’t previously seen.
The album’s opener, “Bad Guy,” is a follow-up to MMLP‘s best track, “Stan,” this time told from the point of view of Stan’s younger brother, Matthew – it’s not nearly as strong as the original, but how many sequels can ever live up to their predecessors? Therein lies the problem with The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
As a general rule of thumb, most sequels to previously successful records (or movies) are poor ideas, mostly because they’re usually made out of desperation, much like MMLP2 – the majority of sequels are nothing more than a moneygrab. Aside from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II, and Dr. Dre’s 2001 (or The Chronic: 2001, its original title)*, it’s difficult to think of any that have achieved nearly the same (let alone better) critical acclaim as their originals. [It should be noted that by "sequels," I'm referring to albums being released a significant period of time after the original - so Lil Wayne's Tha Carter 1-3 or Young Jeezy's Thug Motivation series don't qualify.]
*Speaking of Dr. Dre, where the hell is he on this record? Eminem and Rick Rubin clearly don’t work well together, but you know who Em works really well with?
That goal is even more difficult to accomplish given the fact that Eminem’s makes what is essentially emo music for white trash hip-hop fans. It also doesn’t help that most of Em’s pop culture references on MMLP2 are hilariously outdated – instead of being funny, like he was earlier in his career, it feels like he’s making dad jokes. It’s oddly creepy for a man of his age to make bad jokes and sing about how greatly his life would improve if his girlfriend would “drop dead” with the same emotion as a fourteen-year-old signing along to “Sic Transit Gloria.”
Unless the overarching purpose of releasing the Marshall Mathers LP 2 was for Eminem to introduce himself to a new generation of angry middle schoolers, the obvious reality is that no record he releases will ever live up to his earlier work. The material on MMLP2 feels like a desperate attempt at rekindling what had made him successful in the first place; at some point you would expect for Eminem’s music to grow up along with his audience, but, more importantly, with Marshall Mathers himself.