Eminems: Not Three, But Six Flavors

When I registered @odyshapedotcom with Twitter, I expected a platform to promote our site and reach not just a broader readership, but engage the existing critical community in ways more meaningful that my biweekly stab at Pitchfork. What happened instead totally defied expectations: advertise yourself as a music critic, and literally hundreds of acts will follow you - an implicit request to listen to their music. Eventually I indulged the most compelling-looking handles and rounded up a bunch of tracks for a driving playlist. Well, I’m on my way back to Providence now and, stuck nearly an hour (with no suggestion of movement) outside the George Washington Bridge, I’m party instead to the new Eminem LP. I don’t want to be - but I am. I can’t stop listening. I won’t stop listening. So, let me save the amateur S/Os for next week. Right now, I feel forced to defend last week’s claim that “Shady’s the best thing around again,” by sorta concluding he’s the best thing that’s happened all year.

The man himself, whoever he is, flexed a previously underdeveloped tone for self-promotion (you could’ve called it stark foolishness had this record sucked even a quarter as much as his last two) by titling the thing The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and letting squirt out over several months news his evil twin, Shady for those of you with literally no concept of contemporary western psychology, was out of rehab, or hell, or Detroit - whichever of those sounds worst to you. While there’s surely no better way to (re)define an artistic vision or engorge public interest than to resume the rape and pillage of the most controversial platinum record in history, Marshall was - in strict, anal(hehe)ytical terms - probably wrong to do it. No, not because rap’s caricature hydra fails to meet absurd expectations only plausible insofar as he was the guy to set the standard in first place (in fact he meats the shit out of them). It’s because MMLP2 doesn’t sound like a sequel to MMLP1 (as it should now probably be called), but instead the messy sparknotes to all six of his major debuts - condensed to their finest elements and rewritten with what sounds like a billion dollar Rick Rubin crayon.

Justifiably, people like me have devoted thousands of pages of criticism to locate the recluse, the actual flesh of Marshall Mathers somewhere inside a roaming triangulation of his public identity: there’s Marshall, the man of incessant and apocryphal personal crises, who might be the man we’re looking for if not for the apocryphal thing; next is Eminem, the entertainer of (we should admit this now, definitively) unparalleled emcee ambition and execution; and the bastard twin, Shady - who shits on whatever he doesn’t murder (though sometimes those verbs are synonyms). And while I won’t reduce the bulk of scholarship in this pursuit to absolutely nothing, I will say this triangle can be said to roam because it does: the representation and nuance between and of each persona isn’t consistent or even possible. So, I might stop; especially now that I’ve got an alternative.

With this album, it seems we’d have better luck thinking of this artist as we do of Picasso or Sonic Youth or the Beatles (comparisons I make deliberately and not lightly). Why? Because, in pulling his six LPs together, Marshall/Em/Shady reveals by accident he’s a man (feminists forgive me) of periods. Rather than getting heavy about it, I’ll just reduce this concept to list:

Slim Shady LP: A didactic Caldecott winner about combating white poverty and anxiety in black America (re-uped in 2013 with "Survival," "Legacy," "Brainless")

Marshall Mathers LP: The overpaid college president audits a grad psychology seminar while everyone laughs uncomfortably at his, uh… jokes, right? He’s joking, right? ("Bad Guy," “Rap God,” “Evil Twin”)

The Eminem Show: I shouldn’t have to pay these shrinks these 80 G’s a week to say the same things tweece, twice, whatever - I do anyway ("Asshole,” “Headlights”)

Encore: A midlife crisis akin to Mel Gibson’s Beaver movie, but with a hand puppet thankfully honest about its vagina complex ("Rhyme or Reason,” “Berzerk,” “So Far…,” “Love Game”)

Relapse: Evidence that bored retirees should think long and hard about how they reenter the workforce, lest they immediately go postal ("So Much Better”)

Recovery: Emonem apologizes so quickly I can’t understand a word he saying ("Stronger Than I Was,” “The Monster”)

If you believe me, then a glance at this list proves the guy, whoever he is, cares what critics think - say what he might to the contrary. His most celebrated work reemerges here in spades: the bootstrapping anthem “Survival” gives the bitter “If I Had [A Million Dollars]” its overdue rock god ending (one buffeted in riffage - just so you’re sure), while “Brainless” strips “Brain Damage” of what little sense it had, and “Legacy” arranges all of Shady LP’s diffuse moments approximating sincerity into one dark, rather haunting, living room. The original Marshall Mathers LP also earns itself three sequels - two of which are (not coincidentally) the best songs here: “Bad Guy,” the ill-advised but flawlessly executed aftermath of “Stan,” and “Rap God,” a 1000-word-a-minute (seriously) challenge to “The Way I Am,” and/or Ye’s “I Am A God” that leaves both looking mortal. Meanwhile, the man’s more recent aesthetic - spitting straight horror rap or giving pop queens a chorus to reinforce rather than contrast a mood - finds representation in just three tracks. And while any of these (“So Much Better,” “Stronger Than I Was,” and “The Monster” AKA “Roman’s Re-Revenge”) would’ve been the best on their respective prequels, on MMLP2 they’re emotional ballasts. That’s right - MMLP2 improves Relapse/Recovery while proving both are even worse than we all suspected they were.

And if mommy issues and heated introspection (read also: self-pity) canned The Eminem Show for you, be pleased season two’s offerings tie off the Debbie Mathers saga with “Headlights,” a touching and (purposefully) desultory apologia - in which burgers, Christmas, dementia, and abandonment say nothing and everything as the vagaries of strained love. “Asshole,” on the other hand, is simply fun in ways most of Em Show’s me-against-the-world tracks were not.

Finally, with four tracks reemergent, Encore looks to me like the marginal winner for our man, the period he - if we could ask - might admit feeling partial to. Add to this the deluxe tracks, all of which could’ve been cut in 2004 - and give it up: our artist finds freest expression (and this surely makes sense) in playing puppeteer with voices, setting, mood, tempo; in eschewing the flawless meter he’s trademarked with narrative jumble: off-the-cuff, awkward, and - I’ll admit it - funny and humanizing. “Rap God,” maybe; “Embarrassing Try-Hard Dad Driving Hailie’s Friends to Soccer Practice in a Yoda Accent, Who Keeps Looking In The Rear View Mirror to Make Sure They’re All Giggling,” definitely. And guess what: that seems increasingly his strength.

I don’t think Eminem managed this whole ‘totalizing representation’ thing on purpose. Relapse (the real MMLP2 in the same way the New Testament ruined the old one) might have scared him off just as it had many of his irony-citing defenders. Instead, MMLP2 sounds like a dizzyingly bright human artist exploring all the good ideas he’s ever had, and jamming them together into a massive Voltron. Like, for instance, The White Album, the result looks kinda like shit. But also like The White Album, the music nevertheless destroys everything in its path. How stunned should we be only one man, whoever he is, and however many of him there might be, is at the helm? (Well there’s also Rick Rubin and Kendrick Lamar - but they’re only operating, like, two of the fingers - any two but the middle ones).