I remember May, 2000 perfectly. On a sunny afternoon, I was over at my boy David’s house, and while his mom was upstairs, chatting with mine, he asked me, “Have you heard the new Eminem album? It’s crazy.”
“No,” I said, embarrassed, because I knew it’d be tricky to find a way to cop the CD and hide it from my parents. But it wasn’t just that—I was embarrassed because I was late on Eminem. Way late. When “My Name Is” came out, I thought the track was goofy, and I didn’t give the nasally emcee from Detroit a chance until he forced me to, with his show-stopping performance Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” (and the rest of 2001), and again on the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong.” It was only until a few months before The Marshall Mathers LP made history by selling 1.76 million domestic copies in a week that I even gave The Slim Shady LP a spin. Determined not to be so behind again, I went into David’s basement, where he and I listened to Eminem’s sophomore set from start to finish.
I thought the album was shocking and shameless, terrifying and triumphant, hateful and hilarious. It was the first time I’d ever heard Hip Hop with such emotion, such irreverence, and such a combination of both calculated and intense, unbridled anger. “Kill You” left me wanting to press rewind, but David said, “No, just wait ‘til you hear what’s next.” When “Stan” left me with my jaw on the floor, I knew I couldn’t afford to re-listen. I had to hear the whole thing. “Kim” was as terrifying as any horror movie I’d ever seen, I was stunned at the wordplay on “Drug Ballad,” and “Criminal” had me in stitches.
While the album wasn’t perfect, with too many posse cuts and now-dated pop-culture references, I felt it was one of the most impressive emceeing performances ever committed to wax, and remains so today. The Marshall Mathers LP is devastating and intense, and leaves an indelible impression. It is also unquestionably, at least to me, Eminem’s greatest album, the pinnacle of his genius. Even Dr. Dre, who produced The Chronic, Straight Outta Compton, and Doggystyle, had extraordinary praise for the project.
“I don’t feel like I’ve made my best record yet,” he told VIBE in 2008. “The Marshall Mathers LP got the closest…”
So when Eminem announced little over 13 years later that his next album would be titled The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a little bit of excitement—and a lot of panic—hit me simultaneously. The latter emotion was amplified upon hearing “Berzerk,” the ehh-level tribute to the Beastie Boys, apparently courtesy of co-executive producer Rick Rubin. Will the album be as good as it’s predecessor? Will it be awful? The latter seems more likely, with Eminem’s best albums having been released over a decade ago. And let’s be honest: Eminem could lock himself in his house for the rest of his life and live comfortably without dropping another bar.
So the question is this: is The Marshall Mathers LP 2 an attempt to cash in on the commercial success of one of the fastest-selling albums of all time? Or is Eminem out to prove that one of Hip Hop’s greatest (albeit recently underachieving) talents has what it takes to follow up on his magnum opus? After all, this is the man that admitted on “Talkin’ 2 Myself” that, “I almost made a song dissing Lil Wayne / It’s like I was jealous of him cause of the attention he was getting… / Almost went at Kanye too…” There’s no way to tell for sure until the album drops in November, but here are some of the things Em can do to make sure his next release is worthy of The Marshall Mathers LP legacy.
“But Dr. Dre Said…”: Production, Production, Production
One of the greatest misconceptions about Eminem is that the bulk of his music (or the best of it) has been produced by Dr. Dre. It started with The Slim Shady LP, where “produced by Dr. Dre” was slapped on promo posters and advertisements to give the white emcee credibility and to excite the fans. And, while there’s absolutely no doubt that Dre and Eminem have teamed up for some classic cuts (“Guilty Conscience,” “Kill You,”), Dre has actually produced a surprisingly small amount of Eminem’s work. In fact, Eminem’s first three and most highly-regarded projects, The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show, featured three, six, and three Dre contributions a piece, whereas much-criticized projects Encore and Relapse boasted eight and 17, respectively.
So what does this mean? Leave Dre off and fans are sure to get a classic? Not exactly. But it is a good starting point. A good portion of Eminem’s best work has come not from Dre, but at the hands of Detroit locals Bass Brothers (“Just Don’t Give a Fuck,” “Marshall Mathers”) and Luis Resto (“Lose Yourself,” “Yellow Brick Road,”), as well as Em himself (“The Way I Am,” “White America”). Ultimately, it boils down to this: there are certain producers that know how to produce for Eminem, and others that don’t. This showed itself to be true when comparing Eminem’s earliest projects, which consisted of minimal contributions from producers not yet mentioned to his 2010 release Recovery, whose awful a la carte method resulted in stinkers from Just Blaze and Boi-1da (seriously?).
Historically, I think Eminem’s best work has come not from the big-name producers, but from those who understand his skill set best. Eminem’s multi-syllable runs simply work better when exploring the negative space in a track. Instead of working with producers who want to be the stars of the show, Em’s best work will come with producers like the aforementioned Bass Brothers and Resto, and even the highly-underrated Mel-Man, who understand how to play the background. Of course, the Bass Brothers sued Aftermath and Interscope for royalties, so you can leave them off your wish lists. But the point remains; for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 to be a success, Eminem will have to be very judicious in deciding who will be handling production duties on his project. This will be a difficult task given Dre and Rick Rubin’s involvement. Too many cooks in the kitchen, and Eminem will find himself fighting production that distracts from, instead of highlights, his incredible presence on the mic.
Check The Technique—And The Shout-Rap—At The Door
Eminem is, without a doubt, one of Hip Hop’s greatest technicians, likely rivaled only by Pharoahe Monch in that respect. But ever since his reemergence from drug abuse in 2009 with “Forever” and its show-stealing double-time verse, Em’s been hell-bent on letting everyone know that he’s the rappingest rapper who every rappity-rapped. On every song. All the time.
Em’s never been one to shy away from flaunting his emceeing abilities (check “Criminal” and “Soldier”), but in the earlier part of his career, he seemed to understand that not every verse needs to be rapid-fire, with eleven-syllable internal rhyme schemes. Sadly, as Relapse and Recovery can attest, post-Encore Shady’s albums fall victim to this almost-compulsive need to use overly-technical rhyme schemes and delivery all the time. Ironically, this was the very same flaw that Em clowned Canibus for—repeatedly (“‘Bis, come on, answer me, man, respond! / Tell me ‘bout the sun, rain, moon and stars! / Intergalactical metaphors from Mars!” he rapped on “Can-I-Bitch”). Think about tracks like “Lose Yourself,” “Cleaning Out My Closet,” and “Sing For The Moment.” On those songs, Em was preoccupied with telling a story, conveying emotion, and connecting with his fans. If Slim can pump the brakes a bit, and focus on making great music instead of stuffing every bar with as many syllables as possible, his project will benefit immensely.
Another bad habit Slim’s picked up over the years is his propensity to shout on damn near every song. It’s not like he’s in danger of dethroning Meek Mill in this respect, but there was a time when “Kim” and “Till I Collapse” were the exceptions rather than the rule, and were much more effective because of it.
This ties into production, as referenced above. Take “Won’t Back Down,” a single from Recovery, whose clumsy, blaring production forces Em into revving the chainsaw and shout-rapping his way through the entire track. This was a problem that plagued Recovery much of the way through, and seems like an ever-present threat to derail any modern-day track from Shady. One of Eminem’s greatest qualities was knowing how to play off of his production, whether it was his calm demeanor over a guitar on “Marshall Mathers” or the memorable screams on “Remember Me?” It’s hard to imagine any project sounding good with Mr. Mathers screaming at the top of his lungs from plug to mic, so he’d be well-served to reserve the shout-rap for only a track or two.
Say Goodbye To Hollywood: Don’t Pander
Eminem has notoriously detested pandering to his fans, ranging from basically recording “The Way I Am” as a fuck-you to Interscope for requesting that he record a more radio-friendly single (which became “The Real Slim Shady”), to calling Swizz Beatz “Stan 2” idea “corny.” Even when he’s been forced to pander, he’s been candid about it, as evidenced by a VH1 interview where he admitted he didn’t want to record “The Real Slim Shady.”
“After I heard ‘My Name Is’ a few times, it had become cheesy to me. After listening to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ five or six times, it became cheesy, too. I thought, ‘This is the formula! If this song becomes cheesy to me after a little bit, it might work.’ The songs that I love the most usually don’t end up being singles. When I’m at my best is when I’m dumping my true feelings out, not when I’m being funny.”
Still, there’s cause for concern. Aside from making his next album a sequel to his most successful project ever, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Em’s rocking the blonde ‘do again:
In a 2009 interview with Complex, Em explained why he stopped dying his hair in the first place: “Once I got sober I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m like thirty-five years old, am I going to keep dying my hair fucking blonde?’ Also it was just about letting go. The hair reminded me of my addiction, and I hated myself when I was in my addiction. I hated myself worse than anyone could ever hate me.”
The explanation was the logical conclusion of the Slim Shady mythos Em cultivated on 1998’s Slim Shady EP, where his alter-ego symbolized his darker side. At first, it was a young rapper’s way of sticking out and expressing his outlandish thoughts, but it later became the symbol of his greatest inner demons, a topic he explored on cuts like “When I’m Gone” and “My Darling.” So why is Hip Hop’s Angry Blonde a blonde once more?
One explanation is that label heads might feel a project titled The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Eminem bleaching his hair are necessary components to ensnare fans with nostalgia, possibly the most powerful selling point an established artist has. There are other signs, too: throwing Rick Rubin, who’s been all over the place in 2013, executive producing Kanye West’s Yeezus and…sitting on the couch nearby for Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. Indeed, there’s no question that, regardless of Em’s intention, the Aftermath machine that ruled the early-to-mid 2000s is hard at work, which brings this piece to its final point…
Hi, My Name Is…: Keeping “The Marshall Mathers LP” Legacy Intact
Sequels are a source of dread for those of us who loved the original. It’s why we cringe when we hear that Quentin Tarantino has been toying around with a third Kill Bill movie (technically a prequel, but you get the point), or why fans are freaking out at the thought of more Star Wars films; it’s why Blueprint 2 was such a disappointment, and why Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…II was such a pleasant surprise. Once something is slapped the designation of “sequel,” you’re going to do one of two things: you’ll either build upon the legacy of the original, or you’re going to tarnish it.
As Eminem astutely observed on The Marshall Mathers LP’s “Kill You,” “They say I can’t rap about being broke no more.” And he didn’t, instead focusing on the price of fame: family members asking for money, lawsuits from every direction, obsessive fans, allegations of cultural appropriation, drug abuse, and the uglier sides of relationships. These themes have frequently cropped up in subsequent Eminem releases, but The Marshall Mathers LP is where they really came together for the first time.
Of course, there’s almost no question that Em will revisit the themes that have stuck, but what about the ones that haven’t? For example, on “Marshall Mathers,” Em sarcastically reacted to criticisms that he’d left the grimy raps of the Rawkus and The Slim Shady LP days behind, rhyming, “The underground just spunned around and did a three-sixty / Now these kids just diss me and act like some big sissies / ‘Oh, he just did some shit with Missy / So now he thinks he’s too busy to do some shit with MC Get-Bizzy.’” In 2013, even Eminem would have a hard time arguing that he hasn’t left the underground, so why not offer some honesty about how you feel about making Stadium Rap like “I’m Not Afraid,” or at least how 2000-era Slim would have reacted?
Ultimately, there are dozens of ways Eminem could go with The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but there’s one thing that’s for sure: dying your hair and adding a “2” to an album title does not a sequel make. For Eminem to truly make a spiritual successor to his greatest album, he will have to dig deep and come up with honesty and self-awareness, do the album according to his rules, and flip the bird to anyone who says different. If he can do that, then the dubious proposition of making a worthy sequel becomes a little more manageable.