Eminem wouldn’t be Eminem—or Slim Shady, or Marshall Mathers—if he didn’t allot some of his whizbang rhymes to homophobic slurs and misogynistic fantasies. “Rap God,” a single from his eighth album in which he belittles unnamed rivals as “fags” and “gay,” kicked up the latest in a long line of debates about his compulsion to attack women and gay men.
But on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (which is streaming now on iTunes, ahead of its Nov. 5 sale date), the 41-year-old works his me-or-my-demons shell game more furiously than ever. On the seven-minute-plus opener “Bad Guy,” he imagines his own commeuppance, as the brother of his old stalker character “Stan” kidnaps Em to avenge his late sibling. Facing death, Marshall hears his “lack of a conscience”: “I’m the bullies you hate, that you became/With every faggot you slaughtered/Coming back on ya, every woman you insult/That, with the double standard you had when it comes to your daughters.”
So many layers! But while “Bad Guy”—which recognizes that he’s no better than the bullies who damaged him—might be the closest Em’s come to a mea culpa, it still fails to justify him cranking the cycle back up. He uses anti-gay epithets on at least two more songs, and fully devotes three others to deriding exes, including “Love Game,” featuring a disappointingly stoopid Kendrick Lamar verse. Nor does it put Em in shouting distance of the year 2013. Today the leading rappers cultivate sensitivity (Drake) or channel rage sparked by racism and complacency (Kanye). And virtually all of hip hop is hot and heavy with the fashion world, where females and gay guys obviously pull many of the levers.
Meanwhile, “Berzerk,” LP 2’s most exhilarating track, features Em boasting about his “pressed khakis” over a track built on vintage Billy Squier and Beastie Boys bits. Credit that throwback sound to Rick Rubin, who co-produced the album with Dr. Dre, another rap fogey still going strong. Rubin, the guitar-sampling god who helped Kanye pare down the bludgeoning Yeezus, here sends Eminem back to the future for the album’s most endearingly bonkers tracks. “Rhyme or Reason” rearranges “Time of the Season” by the Zombies so Em can answer the circa-1968 vocals asking “What’s your name?” and “Who’s your daddy?” with “Marshall” and “I don’t have one.” “So Far…” similarly flips “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh. (Joe Walsh!) All this meta-production underlines a more banal truth about Em’s durable appeal: He likes guitars (and on slower tracks, piano). With rock these days as lethargic as hip hop is inventive, Eminem’s the patron saint of those who yearn for big riffs and unapologetic gangstas.
He’s also rightly considered a rap great for his technical prowess, wicked humor, and tenaciousness. (Listen to him, say, inhabit Yoda on “Rhyme or Reason”). As a rapper, he’s virtually untouchable. As a rager, he’s right on many fans’ levels. Which makes his flashes of hatred for women and gay men all the more alarming. At this point, though, his ultimate obsessions are with his disappointing mother and absent father—and those he uses to abuse himself.