Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, "Stan," that so vividly captured how we the audience -- and hip-hop fans in particular -- mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn't until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010's Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.
So just as 1999's The Slim Shady LP prefaced the original MMLP, Recovery is a prologue to MMLP2. Recovery was more effective than the sum of its parts: It was saddled by one of Eminem's weakest performances to date, yet his quest to bring peace to a difficult, turbulent life was engaging anyway. Few among hip-hop's upper crust have made themselves so honest and emotionally vulnerable, particularly within a late-period work. (Earl Sweatshirt's Doris and its depressive bipolar tone comes to mind, but the 19-year-old teen isn't old enough to qualify for this late-period, 30-something stage.) When Eminem revisits this theme for MMLP2, he sounds more assured and technically confident. Perhaps he had more time to refine his words in the three years since Recovery, which was released only a year after Relapse. Or maybe it was just a primal urge to sustain the good will that his comeback produced. "What good is a Recovery if I fumble it?" he asks himself on "Survival."
Eminem's declaration that he's a "Rap God" recalls Kanye West's "I Am a God." It's one of a handful of popular memes he uses for MMLP2. Exploiting the rich-man's blues prevalent among megastars like West and Jay-Z, he makes more references to his wealth than usual. On "So Far," which builds around a sample of Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," he hilariously shouts out, "I've got an elevator in my house. I'm living the dream!" And Kendrick Lamar, one of the most omnipresent voices of the moment, contributes a verse to "Love Game." It's a way for Eminem to measure himself against the latest candidate for best rapper alive.
The collaboration also reaffirms Eminem's importance in a genre where he is often an anomaly, and not just due to his whiteness. As he reprises the usual Slim Shady antics -- retelling the story of being bullied in school via "Legacy" and "Brainless," taking shots at pop errata like Justin Bieber and Ray J, murdering his doppelganger on "Bad Guy," blaming his pernicious use of homophobic slurs on an "Evil Twin" -- he counters the image of the post-millennial star as a remote, imperious trap lord to be gazed at longingly from a distance. He may be an "-sshole," but he's a sympathetic one fully engaged in the messiness of living a public life. "All I wanted to be is the Bruce Lee of loose leaf," he says on "The Monster," which features Rihanna on the chorus. He adds, "I ain't here to save the f-ck-n children, but if 1 kid out of 100 million who are going through a struggle feels it and relates, that's great."
On "Headlights," he effectively severs the connection with the MMLP hellion. He apologizes to his mother, Debbie Mathers, for demonizing her sundry addictions and failing in his early songs and then symbolically burying her in "Cleaning Out My Closet." "I went in head first/ Never thinking about who what I said hurt/ In what verse/ My mom probably got it the worst," he raps while .fun singer Nate Ruess sings the hook. "But regardless, I don't hate you/ 'Cause Ma, you're still beautiful to me."
Yes, it's another tribute to a rapper's mother, which may be cold comfort to the many women he demonizes as "b-tches." (Though these days, he's careful enough to end the verbal assault of "So Much Better" with the winking "I'm just playing, b-tch, you know I love you.") But for anyone that's aware of Eminem's tortured mythology, "Headlights" sounds like a real breakthrough.