By MARK GUARINO | The Chicago Sun-Times
November 4, 2013 8:48PM
This is a big week for Detroit: Voters name a new mayor, a federal court judge decides if the city is indeed eligible for what would be the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in U.S. history for a municipality, and the city’s most famous musical export, Eminem, releases a new album, his first in three years.
If only that third bit was as newsworthy. If the music, lyrical themes, and attitude of “The Marshall Mathers LP2” (Shady/Interscope) feels like a retread, there’s a very good reason why: It name-checks the first “Marshall Mathers” album from 2000, which launched Eminem into the pop culture stratosphere. His natural gifts as a rapper, wordsmith, and provocateur — coupled with an appealing life story — perfectly synced with audiences who found the malice he flung atop candied beats irresistible. In the years since, Eminem has not strayed far from the targets, celebrity and family, that made him a cultural touchstone, but he has branched out and produced music that offered both personal catharsis and political outrage that both reflected an artist growing into even greater powers.
Then there’s this album that slams the brakes. Eminem gives us 16 songs, nearly 80 long minutes, of songs that follow characters we know too well: Eminem the victimized youth and now global star who can’t escape the demons that made him millions, but are so pervasive in his life, he can’t — as he details in the song “So Far” — take a pit stop in a McDonald’s bathroom without being flagged.
By now, we know the real-life Eminem as a tolerant, low-key father who stays close to his native Detroit and has, at certain times, appeared much more reserved than those who followed in his wake. This album gleefully embraces roles that are contrary to all of that, some written with lampooning humor and unabashed geekdom — “Kneed before General Zod, this planet’s Krypton, no Asgard,” he raps on “Rap God” — and others with brain-dead simplicity.
But wait. The state of brainlessness is a major theme of this album, on songs like, well, “Brainless” and “Bad Guy,” in which the rapper admits his one-dimensional appeal. “I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people who die,” he raps. Later, reflecting in “Rhyme Or Reason,” he targets his father for his troubles: “Maybe that’s why I’m so bananas … I related to the struggles of young Americans when their [expletive] parents were unaware of their troubles.”
Getting referential is also evident in the music: “Legacy” has the almost identical formula (soft piano, piano vocals handling the hook) of “Stan,” his collaboration with Dido, and “Evil Twin” resurrects maniacal alter-ego Slim Shady.
The album’s blockbuster moments are buffered by thick guitars from the classic rock canon: Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” on “Berzerk” and Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” on “So Far.” Produced by Rick Rubin, they owe heavily to his past work with the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The production jewelry is also responsible for two other big rock moments commandeered by guest female vocalists: “The Monster,” which hands the power hook to Rihanna, and “Survival” featuring singer Liz Rodriguez,
Eminem’s lyrical speed, tempo swaps, and vocal knife tossing have never been as impressive. But his playful and very skilled attack ultimately vanishes because the content is so dismal, the humor a little too worn out. Eminem has the talent to one day kick out an album that’s all killer, no filler, but until that happens, this is a bunch of cushion stuffing to sit upon and wait.