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Citizen Eminem

Rap’s most successful recluse tries to reconnect with a culture he left behind on The Marshall Mathers LP 2.

Eminem

The sequel to Eminem’s most iconic album begins with a sequel to his most iconic song. In “Bad Guy,” we learn that the titular character from Em’s 2000 hit “Stan” has a brother who is also obsessed with Marshall Mathers. (Students of sequels will notice the resemblance to Jeremy Irons’s Hans Gruber–avenging character in Die Hard With a Vengeance.) Like “Stan,” “Bad Guy” unfolds as a first-person narrative told from the diseased perspective of Eminem’s stalker. The song, in essence, is the paranoid fantasy of rap’s most famous recluse. Em imagines Stan 2.0 driving around for hours in order to find his address. He sees his deranged admirer skulking around his driveway with a knife. In a novelistic flourish, he informs us that the guy’s “mouth is full of saliva” as he circles the house. Eminem is the best-selling hip-hop artist in human history, and he apparently envisions his most devoted fans in terms normally reserved for psychopaths and Doberman pinschers.

If you know “Stan,” you can probably guess what happens from here. (It involves a car trunk and lots of self-aware shouting.) But Eminem is nothing if not an accomplished showman, and he makes sure to throw in a couple of twists to ensure that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is distinguishable from its predecessor. “Bad Guy” ends with Eminem’s paranoia folding in on itself — his would-be killer is revealed to be a metaphor for Eminem’s insecurity, because Eminem’s insecurity is like the sun in Eminem’s universe. Without it, none of this would exist. Debbie, his absentee father, the bullies from high school, Kim, other nameless “bitches,” “faggots,” haters, the omnipresent specter of failure — all of the old tormentors are back in “Bad Guy” to threaten whom the lyrics describe as “the biggest laughingstock of rap who can’t call it quits.”

The reality, of course, is that there is no Stan, no Stan’s brother, and no tormentors in “Bad Guy.” There’s only room for one person in Eminem’s songs, and that’s Eminem — he is always the bad guy and the good guy and every other guy in his art. He won’t let anybody else get close. As rap’s reigning Citizen Kane figure, Eminem wields great power and influence from a distant, secluded Xanadu. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is meant to remind us that he’s still a presence in pop music even if he’s no longer exactly present. Even on a record that ostensibly revisits a moment when he was unquestionably at the center of youth culture, Eminem remains safely sequestered at an undisclosed location.

Releasing a sequel to your biggest album is hardly unprecedented in hip-hop.1 Jay Z legitimized the practice by turning The Blueprint into a trilogy in the ’00s. More recently, the underground rap supergroup Deltron 3030 released Event 2, a self-described sequel to its acclaimed 2000 debut, in October. Last year, Lupe Fiasco put out the confusingly titled Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1, only to announce a few months later that plans for The Great American Rap Album Part 2 had been canceled. (Though this doesn’t necessarily rule out a Food & Liquor III.) Looking ahead, Ghostface Killah might finally finish Supreme Clientele 2, and Redman is supposedly close to releasing Muddy Waters 2. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 slots next to these records, but it’s not a totally comfortable fit. The best reference point for LP 2 isn’t a rap record at all but rather Welcome 2 My Nightmare, Alice Cooper’s 2011 addendum to his career-defining 1975 concept album. Similar to how Cooper revived his most “shocking” guise years removed from a context where it had any semblance of danger, Eminem is consciously hearkening back to the zeitgeist-iest period of his career at a time when his place in pop culture is curiously difficult to discern.


1.

Last week, Albanian American force of nature Action Bronson released Blue Chips 2, the sequel to his awesome 2012 mixtape, as a free download. It is the most purely enjoyable rap record of the year. I should qualify this statement by pointing out that people who do not like records that sample “Tequila,” Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise,” and the recent Bobby Knight–Digger Phelps Applebee’s commercial will not find this record (nor life in general, apparently) enjoyable.

It’s possible I have Cooper on the brain merely because of the wealth of classic rock samples on LP 2. “Berzerk” gloms on to a Licensed to Ill–era Beastie Boys vibe courtesy of Billy Squier’s deathless B-boy favorite “The Stroke.” “So Far …” cribs the massive guitar riff and jaded rock-star sarcasm from Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” Eminem does a call-and-response with the Zombies’ flower child–era staple “Time of the Season” on “Rhyme or Reason,” and digs deep into the playlist of suburban Detroit’s go-to “good times, great oldies” radio station for Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “Game of Love” on the Kendrick Lamar collaboration “Love Game.” Throw in a Skynyrd–Warren Zevon mash-up and LP 2 is practically a Kid Rock album.

I don’t know if it was due to my low expectations after the 12-step drudgery of 2010’s Recovery or my soft spot for byzantine rhymes spit over post–Hotel California cocaine-and-caviar arena rock, but The Marshall Mathers LP 2 worked shockingly well for me for long stretches at a time. (With a running time topping 78 minutes, LP 2 is thick with long, intermittently effective stretches.) Perhaps I’m just relieved to hear Eminem attempting to be funny again, even if nearly every punch line on this album is terrible. Like the part at the end of “Berzerk” when he says, “This is your jam / unless you got toe jam,” which is a line I imagine his own daughters making fun of in an affectionate “our lame dad” sort of way. Less endearing than the toe jam quip is the album’s “provocative” and half-hearted misogyny and homophobia. I understand why some people are already offended by “Love Game,” as it is a lyrically repugnant song.2 But hearing this sort of stuff come out of Eminem’s mouth in 2013 is almost quaint. It’s his bloodiest red meat shtick, the verbal equivalent of sticking a mannequin’s head in a guillotine. At this point, Eminem is like an old gunfighter shooting at cardboard outlaws for tourists — sure, it makes a lot of noise, but he’s firing blanks.


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Sample lyric: “No sense dwelling makes, never been a more compelling case / than a model covered in L’Oreal and mace, who fell from grace / eleven stories for storytelling but the whore was yelling ‘rape’ / so the vocal cords were swelling / and her voice were more hoarser than Tori Spelling’s face.” Let’s leave Tori out of this, bub.

But how has the protagonist changed since the first Marshall Mathers LP? What are the crucial plot developments that necessitated a sequel? Well, for starters, Eminem is older now. And, yes, he’s just about aged out of his ability to tolerate this proverbial fecal matter. My favorite song by a mile, “So Far …,” culminates with Eminem preemptively apologizing to “technology” for his bitching about the difficulty of downloading the new Ludacris song. Later he complains that he can’t get a Kool-Aid stain out of his couch. Also: Eminem really cares about the NFL, and like many 41-year-old men he isn’t shy about getting arcane on your ass. For instance, he likens the arc of his career to Russell Wilson’s rise from undervalued draft pick to top-tier quarterback in the super-bland Rihanna duet “The Monster” — the most obvious lunge for a pop hit on a noticeably non-pop-centric album — and in the medium-bland ballad “Legacy,” he works in a weird digression about NFL Network commentator Brian Baldinger’s supposed lack of professional integrity. (I might have had this exact conversation with somebody’s husband at a barbecue once.) I look forward to the outtake where Eminem parses the poisonous uncoupling of Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman.

Oh dear, I’ve buried the lede: The most momentous addition to Eminem’s mythology on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is that he no longer hates his much-maligned mother. You might recall Debbie Mathers as the first-ever matriarch to be told by her son to go fuck herself in a song that peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard singles chart. But on LP 2‘s penultimate track, “Headlights” — which costars fun.’s Nate Ruess, who continues to make Chris Martin sound like Bon Scott — he offers a surprising mea culpa: “I went in headfirst / never thinking about who what I said hurt, in what verse / my mom probably got it the worst / the brunt of it, but as stubborn as we are / did I take it too far?” Eminem reconciling with his mother is akin to Batman taking the Joker out for a steak dinner — it’s a shocking (if not banal) denouement to what has been one of the primary story lines on his albums. However, wouldn’t it be interesting if Batman and the Joker somehow ended up on the same team? Wouldn’t that make you more likely to care about a new Batman movie? Likewise, Eminem is careful to set up a new enemy in his musical universe at the end of LP 2: his father. “He fucked us both,” Em says in “Headlights,” wisely leaving the door open to another sequel.

Eminem In 2002 — arguably the single biggest year in Eminem’s professional life, when he released his third consecutive diamond-selling album, The Eminem Show, starred in 8 Mile, released his best-ever single, “Lose Yourself,” and turned 30 — rock critic Greil Marcus gave an interview in which he called the rapper “the best New Dylan in years.” This is the sort of statement that seems expressly designed to piss off two diametrically opposed groups. On the one hand, it offends staunch supporters of boomer culture, as these people tend to deify Dylan and bemoan the ascendancy of hip-hop over rock music. On the other hand, it offends staunch critics of boomer culture, who bristle at the notion that the importance of contemporary artists can be viewed only through the prism of a previous generation’s lionized icon. All of this obscures the real reason why Marcus should be taken to task for likening Eminem to Dylan, which is that they are utterly unlike each other in terms of their songwriting. Throughout his career, Dylan has strenuously denied being an autobiographical songwriter, even when his songs appear to be clearly based on his own experiences, whereas Eminem is the most nakedly self-obsessed pop star of the last 20 years.3 This difference is so crucial that it invalidates whatever other commonalities they might share.4 Ultimately, Eminem’s classic-rock analogue isn’t Dylan but James Taylor.


3.

You could argue that Dylan is just being contrary; for instance, it makes exactly zero sense that Blood on the Tracks is based on the writing of Anton Chekhov and not the end of his own marriage, as he claims in Chronicles, Vol. 1. But even if he really is writing about himself, he’s presenting his songs as fiction, not his actual life, and this distinction is important in terms of how his art is conceptualized.

4.

They’re both Midwestern wordsmiths who hide their inherent shyness by adopting personas far bolder and more charismatic than their actual personalities. Also, it’s somewhat noteworthy that Dylan’s grandson is a rapper who was initially inspired by The Eminem Show.

Eminem’s extreme solipsism has long been his privilege as rap’s most prominent Caucasian. For reasons that are deeply unfair and yet readily apparent, he is not saddled with the same baggage as his superstar contemporaries. However Eminem chooses to behave, his actions will not be imbued with a larger cultural meaning that’s applicable to millions of people who vaguely resemble Eminem but aren’t Eminem. If Eminem appears on national television with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit and acts like a socially awkward pop star, he’s perceived as a socially awkward pop star, not as a symbol for how the media addresses matters of race and class. In the early ’00s, Eminem deliberately trolled the media into depicting him as a public menace, but he also had the choice to back off. Now, nobody is examining Eminem’s persona in order to understand modern society. Eminem signifies nothing other than himself.

Kanye West doesn’t get the benefit of being perceived as an individual when he talks about sport-fucking white women, nor does Jay Z when he runs through an inventory of his Basquiats. They represent something bigger, even when they’re merely relating their own thoughts and experiences. This is a tremendous burden, but because Kanye and Jay have embraced that burden and chosen to incorporate it, their music has attained a richness that an infinitely more insular record like The Marshall Mathers LP 2 seems incapable of achieving. If Eminem is no longer interested in connecting with modern pop culture — and the weird callouts to ‘N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Jerry Mathers, and Lorena Bobbitt in the album-closing “Evil Twin” strongly suggest that he’s not — modern pop culture will not require him to do so against his will. He doesn’t have to matter like that anymore.

It would be incorrect to suggest that Eminem is an irrelevant artist — in pop terms, he’s outpaced saleswise by Adele but can still run with Taylor Swift. Also, he can still rap his ass off. (The polysyllabic pyrotechnics of “Rap God” might be empty exhibitionism, but what an exhibition!) But he now occupies the same place in culture as things like NCIS and the stealth summer blockbuster We’re the Millers. He’s hugely popular without being the least bit transcendent, a lonely artist who makes you feel alone for listening to him.