Throughout the rollout for The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which finally sees release today, there’s been a familiar stink on these new Eminem singles and the way he’s presenting himself at this point in his career. We could shuffle through dozens of reference points for a musician with this much longevity, this much reach, this many talking points to his name — and indeed, Spin’s Chris Weingarten tossed more than a dozen of them at Em in his evocative MMLP2 review, comparing the erstwhile Slim Shady to everyone from a cackling out-of-touch talk show host (Jay Leno) to a triumvirate of instrumental virtuosos (Eddie Van Halen, Les Claypool, Neil Peart) to a dominant athlete (“Michael Phelps plus Mary Lou Retton”). Eminem is in a rarefied air among twenty-first century entertainers: Everybody knows him, and everybody has an opinion about him. Even as a far blander incarnation of the PTA-mortifying firebrand he used to be, Marshall Mathers remains a rock star and a lightning rod. That polarizing power reminds me of another icon from a prior generation and a different genre: Eric Clapton.
It makes sense to dip into to the classic rock well for this one. After all, Em does encourage that line of thinking by rapping over — and obnoxiously, cartoonishly interpolating! — a number of decades-old FM staples (“Time Of The Season,” “Life’s Been Good,” “Game Of Love”) on MMLP2. Meanwhile, superstar rappers are aging to the point that we’re comparing them to fossilized rock stars now. Upon the release of Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Grantland dubbed Jay Z hip-hop’s Rolling Stones, a past-his-prime, all-time-great, too-big-to-fail brand name whose new releases, hits or no hits, will now be little more than excuses to launch billion-dollar tours. Spin’s Brandon Soderberg called Kanye West this generation’s Pink Floyd after his “New Slaves” projections and his SNL-throttling multimedia performance of “Black Skinhead.” How many rappers have compared themselves to Kurt Cobain over the years? In that context, it makes sense to assign some similar point of reference to Eminem, especially because people have been equating him with Elvis Presley since the beginning. Sure enough, Steven Hyden, the guy who minted the Jay Z/Stones analogy, offered his own smattering of comparisons, identifying the rapper with Alice Cooper and James Taylor and topping it off by framing Mathers as rap’s NCIS, “hugely popular without being the least bit transcendent.” All of those shots hit their targets, but Clapton has become my favorite cultural artifact to transpose against Eminem due to an almost uncanny similarity in their career trajectories.
Think about it: Both guys first gained notoriety among genre zealots for their masterful chops (see: Clapton’s Bluesbreakers/Yardbirds period and Eminem’s pre-Interscope Infinite era). Both found their way into superstardom as prodigious talents in their fields, technical wizards with enough pop sensibility to bring their respective crafts (Clapton’s fiery blues guitar solos, Eminem’s twisty battle rap) to a mass audience. Both were white guys gate-crashing traditionally black genres but earning the gatekeepers’ respect almost immediately, despite catching some occasional flack for cultural appropriation (see: Slowhand soloing alongside blues legend Muddy Waters or Dr. Dre going so far as to call Eminem “nigga” on “What’s The Difference”). Both struggled with substance abuse but ended up losing much of their creative fire after getting clean, opting to cater to the dominant radio sounds of the day instead: Clapton turned to then-dominant Phil Collins for 1985′s Behind The Sun and 1986′s August, while Eminem teamed with the likes of Pink and Rihanna for 2010′s Recovery. Neither guy’s box office appeal suffered: Clapton’s August was his best-selling effort to date in the UK, while Eminem’s Recovery was a diamond-seller in an era when moving a few hundred thousand units is usually enough to top the albums chart. Even after falling off, neither artist stopped flexing his considerable technical muscle — it just turned into the kind of empty bluster that only appeals to those Guitar Center/Lyricist Lounge types who prize shredding for shredding’s sake.
I don’t think I would have noticed the parallels were it not for the overt “back to basics” posture of MMLP2′s lead single, “Berzerk.” Clapton scored a late-career smash with his 1994 album From The Cradle, his first traditional blues album after decades of incorporating blues sounds into his music and even transforming old standards like “Crossroads” into rock radio hits. From The Cradle marked the beginning of Clapton’s full-fledged revivalist era, when he started making the kind of soul-suckingly reverent, allegedly authentic 12-bar blues museum pieces that the movie Ghost World lampooned in genius fashion with the fictional band Blueshammer. He went on to make entire albums with blues hero B.B. King and release an album-length tribute to Robert Johnson.
Eminem’s pose on “Berzerk” and elsewhere on MMLP2 reminds me so much of Clapton’s Blueshammer era, and not just because of those massive guitar sounds. Em purposefully embraced the music of his formative years, recruiting Rick Rubin to recreate the classic rock breakbeat aesthetic of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, even shoehorning in an Ad-Rock sample to complete the homage, all while preaching, “Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop and start it from scratch.” Similarly, on “Survival” he waxes nostalgic about the good old days, when “it was ’bout busting raps and standing for something.” It’s all a baldfaced stab at the kind of supposed authenticity that comes from returning to a genre’s roots (nevermind that Em seemed to lip-sync those songs on SNL or that he’s content to keep churning out craven radio bait like “The Monster” too). It’s exactly the maneuver Clapton pulled with From The Cradle. (And, OK, rap had already evolved quite a bit by the time Rubin was helping to make stars out of the Beasties and Run DMC, but those early Def Jam years certainly constitute a revered golden age among plenty of hip-hop heads, and it’s not like Robert Johnson was playing a Stratocaster at the crossroads.) Tom even rejected one new Eminem track as “rich-white-guy blues,” and there’s no better way to describe what Clapton’s been doing these past couple decades.
Elsewhere on MMLP2, Em turns his focus to retreading the styles, topics, and even pop-cultural references of his early years, especially 2000′s original Marshall Mathers LP, which might be his way of neatly slotting his own salad days among rap’s golden years. If Em’s recent Rolling Stone interview is to be believed, revisiting The Marshall Mathers LP from the title on down, as on the “Stan” sequel “Bad Guy” or the maternal reconciliation jam “Headlights,” is a way to track how he’s matured with age, not unlike Clapton turning the guitar powerhouse “Layla” into acoustic lounge music for MTV Unplugged. But it’s also a sly way to self-mythologize, to remind his audience what they liked about him in the first place and to cement his place in today’s pantheon of rap gods turned classic rock dinosaurs.
Where does that leave Eminem, then? Impossibly rich, incredibly powerful, permanently famous, and respected excessively by those who don’t know any better (plus many who should). It’s no wonder he’d choose to follow Clapton’s script. But he should be wary that old Slowhand’s musical output has been nothing but suck ever since he decided to settle into career twilight as a complacent, retro-romanticizing elder statesman. Instead, Eminem ought to consider ways to follow in the footsteps of rockers who stayed creatively fresh well into middle age and beyond — say, Bob Dylan (another early point of comparison), or Johnny Cash (his new pal Rubin already knows some of those tricks), or even the more recent rock iconoclast (and fellow ex-provocateur) Trent Reznor. Unfortunately, beyond subjective questions about what it means to stay creatively vital, there’s little incentive for Em to change his game plan at this point. He’s in the money, and his legacy is already so secure that it’s hard to imagine anything but scandal wiping his musical triumphs from the first line of his obituary. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, even if that corruption merely manifests itself in insufferable blockbuster wankery.