Shockingly, the 41-year-old Detroit rapper, born Marshall Mathers, hits his mark. MMLP2 is Eminem's most vital statement since The Eminem Show (2002), and it is an exceptional sequel to one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
When you rekindle old glory, though, vengeful ghosts come out to play. They arrive clawing on the opener, "Bad Guy." It picks up where "Stan," from MMLP, left off. There, an obsessed fan named Stan killed himself and his pregnant wife because Eminem did not respond quickly enough to his letters. Now, Stan's brother, Michael Matthews (note the initials), tries to kidnap and kill Eminem to exact revenge. He succeeds.
So does Eminem, who proves he is still an enthralling storyteller who loves waging war against himself. In the last verse, he angrily raps: "I'm the nightmare you fell asleep in and woke up still in, I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen."
The next track, "Rhyme or Reason," is fluffier and more playful but no less lyrically adroit and haunted. Over a sample of "Time of the Season," the 1969 smash by the Zombies, Eminem adopts a Yoda voice, and immaturely (or satirically, depending on how you interpret his tone) quips that "with great power comes no responsibility," transforming his source's chorus into a nihilistic ode: "There's no rhyme or no reason for nothing."
This is not the first time Eminem has sampled songs from the classic rock canon. He used Aerosmith's "Dream On" on The Eminem Show, and he rapped along with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" in 8 Mile, the semi-autobiographical movie in which he starred. "So Far," from MMLP2, samples guitarist Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good." On paper, that sounds like a very bad idea but it is actually quite funny. After griping like a grandpa about "All these kids with their camera cellphones," the Walsh riff momentarily melts into the beat from "The Real Slim Shady," and Eminem raps: "Went to Burger King, they spit on my onion rings, I think my karma is catching up with me."
That's Eminem's second reference to karma. He has always been super-conscious of his myriad misdeeds (e.g., the time he used his infant daughter Hailie's voice on a song about killing her mother), and the idea that he will eventually be punished always looms large. He almost confronts his demons on MMLP2 (many of them, of course, are internal), but the overall narrative is about survival more than judgment day.
Eminem could not pull such things off a few years ago. See his barely tolerable, forgettable Recovery (2010). But, for the first time in a very long time, Eminem sounds invincible again.
Well, almost invincible. There are some awfully low points on MMLP2. Rihanna's chorus on "The Monster" is astoundingly stupid. The same goes for the jarring chorus from the song featuring Skylar Grey, the title of which is unprintable. And the early single "Survival" is an arena-aspiring anthem filled with the type of corny game-day slogans not even the laziest coach would dare utter to his team.
Otherwise, MMLP2 is a success. Eminem's rapping is often acrobatic and mesmerizing. His lyrics are smart and absurd and irreverent. When Eminem teams up on "Love Game" with Kendrick Lamar, one of the best rappers of the day, he sounds just as electrifying as his young collaborator. On the Beastie Boys and Billy Squier-sampling "Berzerk," the typically tormented Eminem actually sounds like he is having a good time. The ghosts' voices have become softer. For now.