Pity the noise music underground. Think of it: An entire global scene taking root and flowering over the course of decades, finding strongholds in unlikely urban centers, developing its own crusty-warehouse touring circuit. And now it’s an entire network of bands, labels, record stores, venues, festivals — all dedicated to the pursuit of creating the most fearsome, gut-clenching endurance-test sounds known to man. And it’s now obsolete. Noise music has failed. It’s lost the battle. Because no noise artist will ever create a musical moment as purely unpleasant as the sound of Eminem rapping in a Yoda voice over a “Time Of The Season” sample. It just can’t be done. Your Merzbows and your Whitehouses and your Wolf Eyeses can now slink meekly off into defeat. The world’s most popular rapper has done what they could never do. The dream is over.
The Yoda impression comes three tracks into The Marshall Mathers LP 2, after the seven-minute opener where Stan’s little brother kills Slim Shady in Frank Ocean’s name (or something) and the skit where he shoots a police dog. The impression only lasts a couple of bars, but Em gets really into it: the loopy Muppet growl in the voice, the convoluted syntax (“waned for the game, your enthusiasm it hasn’t!”). And while it’s the most put-your-forehead-through-a-window irritating moment on the album, it has competition. There’s the part on “Love Game” where he portrays a mid-blowjob woman, alternating words with slurps. There’s the extended story about when some guy asked him for an autograph when he was in the middle of taking a shit. There’s pretty much all of the jarring anti-woman bug-out “So Much Better,” up to and including the bit where he recycles the “I’m just playing, you know I love you” from the original Marshall Mathers LP opener “Kill You.” There’s especially the moment on “So Much Better” where he rhymes “oink oink oink” with “you fuckin’ pig, all you’re good for is doink doink doink!” Seriously. A grown man. “Doink doink doink.” And then, immediately after that: “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of them, I need a machine gun!” Suffice to say: My favorite moment of my first listen to the album came when I accidentally unplugged my desktop speakers and I got a few seconds of sweet, glorious, crystalline silence.
Em’s supporters, including my Spin colleague Christopher Weingarten, will point out the staggering technical complexity of Em’s rapping, and it’s true, he’s going nuts here. Every line here comes weighted with a mindbending array of internal-rhyme pyrotechnics and wraps itself around the leaden beats with crushing boa-constrictor intensity. As technicians, very few rappers walking the planet are Em’s equals. And one of his few rivals in that department, Kendrick Lamar, sounds so cowed when he shows up on “Love Game” that he practically just adapts Em’s tourettic flow himself. But then, what’s he doing with all that skill? Nothing good. Absolutely nothing.
Once upon a time, Em’s punchline were marvels of economical cartoon menace. Consider this line from D12’s “Purple Pills”: “I can’t describe the vibe I get when I drive by six people and five I hit.” I always loved that line, but the Em who wrote that line is gone. 2013 Eminem would never be able to limit himself to something like that. He’d have to let you know what kind of car he was driving, what the people he hit looked like, their names and occupations, what the one who got away ate for breakfast that day. He would describe the vibe he got. The above-mentioned autograph story goes on for half a verse and crams in way too much detail before reaching the inevitable conclusion where he throws shit at the guy. He’s become a clumsy writer, an overexplainer. And his delivery, while rhythmically dizzying, refuses to sit still; it jumps around like it’s desperate for your attention. There’s no precision, no dynamic pacing, no style. If you compare his delivery here to something like Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares Intro” — a chest-beating adenoidal fast-rap that probably carries some early-Em influence — the present-day Em just can’t withstand it. He doesn’t have that level of focus, that knowledge of when to hold back and when to turn up, and he can’t conjure that same feelings-punch. He sounds sweaty, cold, nervous. He’s not fun to listen to.
And that’s before we even get into the virulent anti-women stuff going on here. Em throws around the world “faggot” here, like the mere existence of Tyler, The Creator grants him permission, but he throws in enough meta-textual games that he at least grants himself some plausible deniability. His homophobia here isn’t nearly as severe as it was on the first Marshall Mathers LP, but the female stuff is another matter entirely. Every Eminem album is a breakup album, of course, and this stuff isn’t new to him either. But when Em repeatedly murdered Kim Mathers on record early in his career, those songs at least seemed like products of raw personal trauma, genuine spleen-vents. The equivalent moments here are, by contrast, chilly and robotic and calculated. They’re Em thinking to himself that people liked it when he did this 13 years ago so here it is. There’s some half-hearted stuff about how wrong it feels to be rapping this stuff while he’s raising a teenage daughter, but it’s not like that stops him from rapping it. I wish it would.
Musically, the big story here is that Em recruited Rick Rubin as an executive producer (alongside Dr. Dre, who seems altogether absent here). Rubin’s big trick is the same one he once used when he was working with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys: Obvious classic-rock-radio samples! That one has, at best, mixed results. The Billy Squier drums on “Berzerk” are one thing; that was, after all, already a time-honored rap break. But is there anyone alive who really needed to hear Em remake Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” as rich-white-guy blues? Is that a thing that needs to exist? There’s some novelty appeal, I suppose, to hearing Eminem and Kendrick over “Game Of Love,” but it’s nothing like Rubin and the Beastie Boys using the “When The Levee Breaks” drums for adrenaline-rush momentum on “Rhymin’ And Stealin’.” And all the Ad-Rock samples on “Berzerk” don’t make for a Beastie tribute as effective as the moment, years ago, when Em claimed that he had bitches on his jock out in east Detroit because they think that he’s a motherfucking Beastie Boy.
Mostly, those samples give Em a chance to show off his sample-clearance money and to reinforce his self-image as a clueless middle-aged suburban dad. And it’s not like Em needs any help in this result. Over the past two years, 2 Chainz has done extremely important work in making radio-rap safe for dad-jokes, and now we’re facing the very real chance that Em’s K-Fed and Lorena Bobbit jokes will undo all that. Elsewhere, Em’s production leads hard on the operatic goth-strings stadium-rap that he ran into the ground years ago, and they evince zero knowledge of anything that might be happening right now in rap. That’s a shame. Maybe it would seem craven and desperate if Em would try out Future-style Auto-Tune or rap over a DJ Mustard beat, but then again, maybe that would loosen him up a bit.
Em’s last album, 2010’s ridiculously popular Recovery, was a leaden drag, too, but at least it was an honest leaden drag, a public attempt to tackle demons and make amends. Here, Em undoes all that in a halfassed quest to reclaim the demonic verve of the first Marshall Mathers. But there’s no joy in it, no real playfulness, none of that old wonder at the things that words can do. It’s soggy, bilious, rancid, way too impressed with itself. Em was once rap’s giddiest, most inventive stylist, and now he’s a sad echo of a long-dead self. So listen to The Marshall Mathers LP 2, in its 80-minute endlessness, as endurance-test noise music. Or, better yet, don’t listen to it at all.