Review Summary: Slim Shady's long-awaited return can't quite grasp the excellence of his earlier material, but succeeds in enough ways to satisfy.
Aside from the endless torrent of 'Rap God' over the radio, I've never listened to Eminem with a great deal of attention. 'Recovery' and 'Relapse' left me cold in moments, and I found 'Encore' to be insufferable. That being said, it's hard to argue that Eminem has faded into irrelevancy - with his earlier albums such as TMMLP(1) and 'The Slim Shady LP' providing enough artistic momentum to leave fans waiting for a return to greatness. 'The Marshall Mathers LP 2' isn't quite what 'The Bends' did for Radiohead, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
The album doesn't waste time to tell us that Eminem is a confused artist. The appropriately saddened opening line to the album on 'Bad Guy' ("It's like I'm in this dirt, digging up old hurt") is jaggedly contrasted with oddly braggadocios 'Rap God' - and although the track is somewhat in tongue and cheek, there's an underlying arrogance behind certain lines like "Morphing into an immortal coming through the portal". Eminem is clearly hounded by his past from both an emotional and artistic perspective, and it serves as both a blessing a curse to many of the tracks on the LP. On the one hand, there's a truly convincing violence and hatred behind his rapping that's particularly powerful on the poignant 'Headlights' or the more aggressive 'Survival' and 'Berzerk'. For those more familiar with his earlier material, many of the references to his older LPs will be mostly appreciated (particularly the allusions to 'Stan'). Yet, even if you do have a familiarity with the first MMLP, the emotional disconnect that has aggregated over time really deteriorates any sense of empathy with the artist. The continual hearkening back to his past begins to feel almost desperate, and at the worst of times almost parasitic.
On more a technical note, TMMLP2 is riddled with some brilliant production and lyricism. The rock influences on 'Survival' with its aggressive guitar track really accentuates Eminem's fluctuating temper, with segments of the song bordering on yelling. Following onto 'Legacy', the prior track's fury is tempered skillfully by a rain that persists throughout most of the song, powerfully benefiting the sorrow imagery Eminem attempts to stir up. 'Rap God' has an appropriately decadent beat behind it, with similar thematic consistency seen on the novel 'So Far...' and 'Headlights'. Easily one of the production highlights of the album is seen on 'Groundhog Day' with a beautifully twanging acoustic track that's artfully blended with occasional violin layer. Yet in spite of the track's phonic appeal, it has a falteringly appropriate sense of thematic relevancy that's quite applicable to the album on a whole. Although some tracks have a truly complimentary production ('Headlights' and 'So Far...') the album doesn't successfully tell a story. It doesn't take advantage of being an album like 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' manages to, with songs (perhaps intentionally) alternating between pseudo-grandiose tracks like 'Desperation' and more somber themes, such as those seen on 'Stronger Than I Was' or 'Headlights'. This use of contrast would be wholly appreciated if it wasn't quite so haphazard; Eminem seems to indicate some sense of pattern or progression with a series of more upbeat tracks before tearing it down by interrupting the gradient with an oddly inappropriate theme - by far the worst culprit being 'Stronger Than I Was'.
'Strong Than I Was' is terrible track. It's bizarre that on a rapping LP with an artist referring to himself as a 'Rap God', Eminem decides to clumsily switch between ordinary singing and a tattered half-rap; it falls short at every turn. The drumming on the track is suggestive of a striking conclusion, yet when it eventually arrives after 5 and a half minutes of drivel it's just a faded repetition. With the exception of 'Stronger Than I Was' and Skylar Grey's unsatisfying vocal contribution to 'Asshole', there is an overall consistency of quality that supports the majority of the album - it's just a shame such consistency wasn't seen in Eminem's thematic constructions.
'The Marshall Mathers LP 2', in spite of its numerous flaws, is often a strong rap album. It's simply a shame to see so many tracks held back by lacking attention to detail in their conceptual elements, especially given the skillful attention to detail in Eminem's comically biting lyrics. Perhaps the greatest shame, however, would be 'Stronger Than I Was' - leaving such a poor taste on an otherwise borderline great album.