Guess who’s back? Back again? Shady’s back, as you can probably tell from the onslaught of media ever since those two surprise commercials aired during last Sunday’s Video Music Awards. Eminem is preparing a sequel to his Marshall Mathers LP,MMLP2, and it’s going to be overseen by Dr. Dre and the new doctor they tell you to see when your album isn’t doing too good, Rick Rubin. You would think Eminem doing a Rubin-produced Beastie Boys tribute in 2013 would be a slam dunk, but its poor reception by all but the most devoted of Stans begs the question: if “Shady” is back, who are we really getting and is it really worth it?
See also: Why We’re Still Excited When Eminem Makes Music
The stick-and-move promotional tactics for Marshal Mathers LP 2, like each and every Eminem release since 2009’s Relapse, has been marketed as if it were his “comeback” album. While Relapse made sense, as it truly was his first release in about five years, Em’s subsequent outings have insinuated that he’s somehow coming back from his own comebacks, as if to say the Eminem we all want back is somewhere buried beneath the bizarre accents and sweeping R&B choruses. So why do we keep coming back?
Perhaps it’s because, considering his initial run, Em was incredibly consistent. When considering major label releases, 1999’s Slim Shady LP, 2000’s Marshall Mathers LP and 2002’s The Eminem Show are three of the strongest consecutive statements in the genre. 2004’s Encore wasn’t on their level, but in-between its bright spots, fans convinced themselves its shortcomings could be explained by Eminem purposefully trying to make a bad album (how else can you explain the utterly atrocious “Just Lose It”) or divert from the Em Agenda to have his say on that year’s tumultuous political climate (the puzzling gesture that was “Mosh”) as some sort of dis to his record label and/or own celebrity status. Either way, it’s Eminem crossing the finish line with a legacy intact of three very strong outings, an easy to collect legacy just made for new listeners of any age to familiarize themselves enough with and celebrate, allowing Em’s five year absence to transform him into one of rap’s first true catalog artists.
But now that everyone from seventh-graders to soccer moms know about his prowess, the single which leads off his latest album is largely inconsequential. Like any aging living legend in music, his new titles are going to sell off the strength off his old titles alone. As a result, each new release has seemed like an event, signaling not just a return of Eminem, but of Eminem hysteria. By now, the comeback card’s been played in four of the past five years. To put it in perspective, Relapse came out so long ago that it was on Virgin Megastore shelves. Relapse was also Eminem’s first release in a post-Twitter, post-Youtube world where his once cherished jabs at celebrity misconduct had suddenly turned into what instantly dated him.
Case in point, Eminem’s first music video single in four years, “We Made You.” Crazy as it may sound, the 2009 video/songs’ references to Lindsay Lohan’s lesbian era and Bret Michaels’ Rock of Love are as dated now as they were then. No longer could Em’s sly celebrity bashing backhands retain their timeliness, as the speed of modern media made him hip-hop’s Friedberg and Seltzer. But as the title implied, this was Eminem supposedly “Relapsing” into the Slim Shady character we first fell in love with. His follow-up Recovery was meant to give us the introspective Eminem that defied the odds and helped us out of our dark places. While Eminem’s gone on record stating he’s been trying to figure out why his new music doesn’t sound like his earlier albums, these outings show he’s missed the point of made him originally so great.
Yes, The Slim Shady LP was shocking, but that wasn’t because of what Em would say about the celebrities of the day. Rather, his debut accomplishes the rare feat of an MC creating a self-contained world (not unlike De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising or Goodie Mob’s Soul Food) where the listener’s drawn into the specific rules and environment of the album’s universe. Shocking, but it was the narratives that made these shocks all the more satisfying. The Marshall Mathers LP was Em taking the stoic protagonist from the previous album’s world and letting him wreak havoc on the 2000 pop chart. We get the love of his daughter and his frustrations from coping with celebrity, but again these more emotional moments came from narratives that the listeners would earn. The all-shock of Relapse and all-morose of Recovery were both attempts for Eminem to return to being “the old Eminem” and instead sound like an Eminem-tribute-to-Eminem’s Golden Age. Presumably, Mr. Mathers himself must agree as he’s been leading his new releases by expressing his displeasure with his own most recent albums.
So where does this leave us with “Berzerk?” While Em’s thankfully stopped doing the triple-time trample-all-over-the-beat flow that he’s been bringing to every guest appearance, the record starts with his highly-nasal screaming and proceeds to build its chorus around a Kevin Federline reference. Even for a bigger K-Fed apologist than most, it’s really weird. “Berzerk” sounds completely disconnected from hip-hop today, which Eminem might very well be. Truth is, next year makes Eminem’s comeback just as long as his first run, and while Recovery was the first album to digitally go platinum and “Not Afraid” was the first rap single to debut at #1 since Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missin’ You,” as a listener it brings the question as to whether this return was even nearly as satisfying as the quintessential Eminem years. Naming his next album the sequel to his most acclaimed work is pretty ballsy, and deep down we’re probably all cheering for Eminem’s music to make us feel like it once did. While the second verse of “Berzerk” actually manages to somewhat accomplish this, it’s surrounded by the mess of what modern Eminem has become. Yet at this point, we know what his name is, and for some that’s enough.