To borrow the shtick of one of his many deranged-white-rapper disciples, Eminem’s seventh major-label solo album is the Rap Game Ulysses: crazy long, crazy dense, and crazy, period. Even graded on the Super-Bloated Mainstream Hip-Hop Album curve, it’s bound to generate as much exhaustion as exhilaration — it may, in fact, sit on your (digital) shelf for years before you work up the fortitude to finish it. Oh, and compared to James Joyce’s 1922 novel, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 often has staler jokes. (Monica Lewinsky and Lorena Bobbitt! In late 2013! Really!)
Of course, you expect out-of-touch dad humor from the father of a 15-year-old girl, but you also (as he briefly notes) expect a touch less misogyny, which despite a few “Stan” callbacks is unfortunately MMLP2‘s strongest connection to the beloved, star-making 2000 original: Don’t play “So Much Better” or the gonzo-but-gauche Kendrick Lamar team-up “Love Game” around children ages 2 to 25. He somewhat makes up for it later by apologizing to his long-suffering mother on “Headlights,” but that track also features fun. singer Nate Reuss. So call it a draw.
It’s all part of the self-flagellating, astoundingly verbose martyr/menace pose Eminem strikes here, a “borderline genius who’s bored of his lines” aware of the ways pop culture passed him by (“I’m all out of Backstreet Boys to call out and attack”), but also the ways it hasn’t: 2010′s Recovery was a massive commercial success, echoed here via the overwrought emotional catharsis of “Stronger Than I Was” and Rihanna’s mournful hook on “The Monster,” a poor cousin to the earlier No. 1 smash “Love the Way You Lie.” Sweet female-sung chorus + mean, macho, masochistic verses remains Em’s go-to formula: The song title “Asshole (feat. Skylar Grey)” sums him up perfectly.
What else? Rick Rubin, that’s what else: As co-executive producer (alongside a silent-feeling Dr. Dre), he clearly drives MMLP2′s most striking tracks, which swallow up classic-rock samples so completely the results feel more like remakes: Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” on “Berzerk,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” on “Rhyme or Reason,” Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders’ “Game of Love” on “Love Game.” Those tracks are all retrograde in the extreme, of course, but Em’s rapping therein is often spectacular, flamboyant, and overwhelming; the six-minute blackout “Rap God” alone may give you an aneurysm. He’s still got it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the uglier, and the astonishing. Good luck absorbing it all.