Eminem’s attempt to recapture his old sound yields mixed results

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By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer

Film sequels released more than a decade after their predecessors can sometimes make for a refreshing reunion with beloved characters — but almost always draw initial skepticism.

While few would pass up on a chance to see a graying (or balding) Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone reprise their most iconic roles, it’s important to beware of the cash-grab motivations and the decline in quality common to these big-gap sequels. Similar precautions should be taken when approaching any rap album’s sequel.

Long ingrained in rap’s history, the sequel album is often powered by a daunting ethos and set of expectations. Frequently it is an attempt by a rapper to stage a return-to-form by recapturing a familiar aesthetic, an attempt to please “original” fans of the artist and ultimately a ploy to sell more records. On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem attempts to rebound from a series of middling studio efforts and rekindle his glory days as a jokester MC.

Sure, Eminem seems to be having more fun this time around than during his last wildly successful, yet artistically uninspired, outing, Recovery. But MMLP2 exemplifies most of Eminem’s worst habits, even if his tongue is placed firmly in cheek. In some ways, the sequel manages to turn back the clock with some gleefully old-school production (“Berserk”) and pricey vintage samples (a hook from The Zombies classic “Time of the Season” becomes “Rhyme or Reason”). However, it also mistakenly assumes that homophobic slurs and Monica Lewinsky gags will still resonate with the 2013 rap listener.

On the opening track, “Bad Guy,” Eminem acknowledges fan skepticism about the sequel album as a means to boost sales, but admits that he’s just “trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle.” From a technical standpoint, Eminem takes pains to prove that he can still keep up with the new kids. Some tracks, such as the second-best self-deifying rap track of the year, “Rap God,” showcase Eminem’s undeniable quick-lipped brute force. But his constant changes in character and his grasp for the perfect punchline make it a frequently-exhausting experience. You’d think that a 41-year-old rapper would be ready to rest on his laurels — yet Eminem turns in an excruciating amount of effort.

Somehow, crafting a token megahit seems to come most naturally to Eminem these days. After his first collaboration with Rihanna, “Love The Way You Lie,” conquered anything and everything in 2010, teaming up with her again on “The Monster” had to be one of his easiest decisions.  

While it will surely find similar Billboard success, “The Monster” somehow manages to be even less ambitious than “Love The Way You Lie,” capitalizing heavily on the pop-EDM crossover aesthetic that has propelled artists such as Flo Rida and Pitbull into stardom. On a record that pledged to “take it back to hip-hop and start it from scratch” a few tracks earlier, the Rihanna collaboration feels confused and misplaced.

While MMLP2 will never be mistaken for the introspection of Eminem’s previous efforts, he does occasionally reach for an emotional gut-punch, albeit with varied success. On breakup power-ballad “Stronger Than I Was,” Eminem unconvincingly croons for as long as he has in any song. It’s easy to picture the aging rapper on his knees with fists clenched, nearly bursting a blood vessel to convey the pain, anguish and rage — but instead he provides us with one of the most unintentionally hilarious choruses of the year.

The Nate Ruess-assisted ballad “Headlights” finds Eminem at his most contemplative and remorseful, as he seeks to finally make amends with his mother. He strikes a genuine balance between understated regret and passionate rage — a balance that has characterized some of his strongest tracks.

As Eminem braces for middle age, perhaps a little mellowing out and easing of the throttle wouldn’t hurt.

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