‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ Review: Eminem’s a Great Rapper With Nothing to Say

Expecting Eminem to channel his late-20s self was an impossibly ambitious demand. ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ reminds us the superb rapper is older—but really hasn’t grown up much.

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Eminem is 41 years old and it’s showing. Having released his debut album Infinite in 1996, he’s now taking his rightful place alongside Jay Z in leading the charge of legacy rappers who refuse to quit, midlife crises be damned. The Detroit MC’s new Marshall Mathers LP 2, designed to be a direct continuation of 2000’s seminal Marshall Mathers LP, puts him definitively in the category of so-called #DADRAP.

Early in his career, the angst, violence, and pills that inspired the ire of parents and the admiration of teenagers the world over were just as integral to Eminem’s success as his talents. Without the controversial lyrics that detailed hatred for his mother, his wife, and the Justin-Britney-Christina axis of pop, he could easily have ended up just another marginal battle rapper. So when he graduated from antihero to pop stalwart in the mid-aughts, the rap world largely lost interest. MMLP2 is Eminem’s attempt to reverse that narrative. And while he gets some of it right, the album is mostly an abrasive, inconsistent reminder that he’s further from his origin story than he’s ever been.

After nearly two decades of honing his craft, Eminem remains a superb rapper, arguably the world’s best. With its dense, impressive amalgam of internal rhymes, tricky flows, and assumed characters (including an odd but uncanny Yoda impersonation), MMLP2 confirms that. But, despite his lyrical and vocal dexterity, Eminem falls short in recreating the spirit of the first Marshall Mathers LP; the absurdity that, by his own admission, made him White America’s favorite public enemy is no longer convincing. Really, expecting 41-year-old Eminem to channel his late-20s self was an impossibly ambitious demand.

For all the syllables crammed into its 79 minutes, very little is actually said on the Marshall Mathers LP 2. In between gratuitous puns and punchlines, Eminem relies more on surface-level references to MMLP—he’s even returned to his signature bleached-blonde hair—than on the ethos of unadulterated honesty and inventive storytelling that made the original so successful. “Hey! I’m still angry! I’m still the same guy!” he seems to be yelling unconvincingly, with ridiculous lyrics like “Bitch, you just need a helmet ‘cause if you think you’re special, you’re retarded / Thinking you’re one of a kind, like you got some platinum vagina.” And just in case you forgot what he set out to do, Eminem borrows plenty of lyrics and samples from MMLP for use all over MMLP2.

That overpowering, but ultimately ill-placed, nostalgia seems to also ring true for executive producer Rick Rubin. The Def Jam doyen returns to his ‘80s-era sonic signatures: classic rock samples (like the Joe Walsh sample on “So Far”), dated arena rock drums (the Billy Squier drums on “Berzerk”), and clichéd records scratches recall the Beastie Boys more than they do the glory years of Eminem. But rap-rock is no one’s friend, and the influence of co-executive producer Dr. Dre, whose retreat from music is a punchline at this point, is noticeably, sorely difficult to pinpoint.

On “Bad Guy,” the album’s seven-minute introductory track, Eminem revisits one of MMLP's most affecting and memorable plot points—the death of Stan, a rabid fan who kills himself after what he perceives as a sustained slight by Eminem. Now, 13 years later, Stan's little brother Matthew is back to avenge his death. The S1, M-Phazes, and StreetRunner-produced track, which features a vocal assist from Sarah Jaffe, sees Eminem showing off his characteristic rapidfire flow over a cold, creaky beat that takes a turn for the dramatic five minutes in. The threats from Matthew are not veiled: “I'm the future that's here to show you what happens tomorrow/ If you don’t stop after they call you / The biggest laughing stock of rap who can’t call it quits,” he snarls.

Elsewhere on the album’s 18 tracks, beats from DJ Khalil, Frequency, and DVLP are solid, polished pieces of music that disappoint largely because they aren’t particularly progressive in a year when the major rap releases—Kanye West’s Yeezus and Drake’s Nothing Was The Same—have tried new things musically. Some songs, such as “The Monster” and “Legacy,” which feature Rihanna and Polina Goudieva respectively, pander obviously to pop radio, with hooks designed to lodge themselves into your brain unsolicited. It’s a ploy that will definitely work.

Other tracks, like “So Much Better,” “Brainless,” and “Rap God,” are great feats of rap, with lyrics like “You don't really wanna get into a pissing match / With this rappidy rap / Packing a Mac in the back of the Ac / Pack backpack rap, yep, yackidy-yac” substantiating Eminem’s boasts. In terms of technique, his only real competitor is Kendrick Lamar, incidentally the album’s sole guest rapper, who appears on “Love Game” to do his best Eminem impression.

However, the handful of enjoyable listens go south thanks to his dependence on misogyny and homophobia-premised punchlines. “Little gay lookin’ boy / So gay I can barely say it with a straight face lookin’ boy” he taunts on “Rap God” for no apparent reason and to no comedic effect. Now that it’s no longer shocking, Eminem’s calling card of yore—unrelenting misogyny and homophobia—falls absolutely flat. Whereas the dark, sadistic, hilarious lyrics of MMLP were translated as the honest expressions of a misguided young man, similar attempts are wholly difficult to stomach coming from a grown man who seems to enjoy calling opponents faggots just because he can. The hatefulness parading as authenticity on MMLP2 is neither entertaining nor successful without Eminem’s once-signature wit.

In true dad rap form, his complaints about technology—“My apologies, no disrespect to technology / But what the heck is all of these buttons? / You expect me to sit here and learn that?” he asks on “So Far”—make up one of the album’s few earnest bits. The other heartfelt moment is a sincere apology to his mother, formerly the primary target of his rage and whose dysfunction was immortalized in the autobiographical film 8 Mile. On “Headlights,” alongside a grating hook sung by fun.’s Nate Ruess, Eminem puts forth the apology no one expected: “To this day we remain estranged and I hate it though / ‘Cause you ain’t even get to witness your grandbaby’s growth / But I’m sorry mama for “Cleaning Out My Closet” / At the time I was angry / Rightfully maybe so, never meant that far to take it though.” This tiny sliver of adult Eminem is far more compelling than most of MMLP2.

Amidst the inconsistency, though, what’s clear is that Eminem truly enjoys rap as sport. Once you get used to that idea, the Marshall Mathers LP 2 serves mostly as a reminder that there are much stronger records in his catalogue that you’d rather be listening to.

Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that “Bad Guy” was written in Eminem’s voice. In fact, it's commonly understood to be written from the perspective of Stan’s little brother Matthew.