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Review: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP2

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I was ten years old when Eminem stuck his middle finger up to the world with The Marshall Mathers LP.  To people who said he could never make it in hip-hop because he was white.  To naysayers who called him a never-will-amount-to-anything piece of white trash.  To his absent dad, his child’s mother, his English teacher, and his dope-head mom.  He didn’t give a fuck, God sent him to piss the world off.

And here we are, 13 years later.  Eminem is eight albums deep in his career.  He’s experienced inconceivable success, scandals, law suits, drug issues, recovery and finally, a full circle return in the form of The Marshall Mathers LP2. 

And me?  Well, Em and I have sort of lost touch.  I admired him for not giving a fuck.  I loved the way his witty lyricism hopped jumped and skipped through this maze of beats.  How he challenged himself at every turn.  How fast can I flow on this beat?  How much can I offend mainstream America?  Like he got off on the image of mothers covering their sons ears, begging him to stop bragging about slitting faggots’ throats and raping women.  His subject matter thrilled me.  Like the thought of running away for a night just to see how my parents reacted.  Or saying a swear word in sixth grade social studies to get a gasp out of the girl next to me.

But I’m twenty-three now, and honestly,  MMLP2 doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, Eminem exercises his renowned lyrical abilities.  He can spit as fast as Twista, tell graphic tales, and make hilarious allusions to current events all in one verse. But thirteen years later,  I no longer get a thrill from hearing about women being drowned and violently fucked, and frankly, It’s hard not to cringe from the image of my childhood idol breaking a table “over a couple of faggots backs.”

Now–before I get slim-shady’s fan group all riled up into thinking I’m some oblivious, easily offended critic—I get the whole alter-ego thing.  I understand that Eminem doesn’t actually believe all these things.  That slim shady is his evil rapping twin persona that was born to see how easily he could offend sensitive ears.  That Eminem actually supports gay rights, probably respects women, and has done his best to raise his daughter to believe the same.  I get it.  I just think the act is exhausted, and find myself asking: why?

Why is Eminem so angry? He’s not the same twenty-seven-year-old who had something to prove.  He’s a successful rap icon, self-proclaimed rap god who has earned a spot on most everyone’s list of top-ten MC’s alive.  Why does he find it necessary to rekindle the flame he sparked at the beginning of his career, revisiting the same subject matter, hunger, and angry-menace attitude? The very persona that earned my respect as a young fan of hip-hop has me at a loss, wondering why a forty-one year old mogul hasn’t really changed at all.  What was once an impermeable confidence now comes off as a desperate desire to prove that this middle-aged man still has his old tricks.

When I think of Eminem’s peers, rap icons like Jay-Z and Kanye, they’ve matured in ways we couldn’t have perceived at the start of their careers.  They’ve grown into icons who have learned how to revisit their past with more reminiscence than full-fledged embodiment.  Who can brag about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned with a newfound maturity, and a worldly awareness of what they represent in the world hip-hop.

The intro to “Rap God” really says it all.  We hear a comic book, Wu-Tang-esque voice : “Look, I was gonna go easy on you and not to hurt your feelings, But I’m only going to get this one chance.”  As if this is Slim-Shady’s only chance to prove something to the world.  Prove what?  That he can still portray this misogynist, homophobic persona?  That if he doesn’t do that, he’s going easy on us? Eminem hasn’t hurt my feelings, he’s just left me disenchanted by his range of material.  In thirteen years, he hasn’t found a way to prove his dominance in the rap game without bragging about sexuality dominating women?

He begins to acknowledge this lack of progress in “Asshole.”  In the last verse, he spits:

Only women that I love are my daughters

And sometimes I rhyme and it sounds

Like I forget I’m a father, and I push it farther

So father forgive me if I forget to draw the line

It’s apparent I shouldn’t of been a parent I’ll never grow up

 Eminem embraces some self-deprecation here, revisiting the self-criticism that has always added an admirable complexity to his music.  But at this point in his career, the wheels have fallen off.  Slim’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that made him so appealing in his early work feels different now.  Like he’s trying too hard to be careless.

I’ll still spin “Till I Collapse” on my heavy rotation and hell, I think MMLP2 has some great lines, killer flows, and stadium beats.  I still think that Eminem is a hilarious, complex rap icon who has filled a necessary hole in hip-hop.  His ability to paint horrifying pictures and embody a range of characters is unmatchable. It’s easy to see how his music has inspired a new generation of rappers–Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf to name a few.   Perhaps that’s why, as much as it pains me, I’m being so critical of my childhood icon.  Because, thirteen years later, I expected more from a rapper who is fully capable of doing so.

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Review: Kanye West’s Yeezus

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We were halfway through the curriculum in my Revolutionary Milton course in my senior year of college, and the next item on the reading list was none other than Paradise Lost. My professor–a wise, humorous, and blunt woman who has read the epic 12-part poem countless times—had a proposed method to tackling the literary giant.  “Pour yourself a glass of scotch at dusk.  Open the book and start reading.  Don’t stop, and take your time on the liquor.  You’ll be done with the poem by dawn.” I know, you’re probably wondering why I started a review on Kanye West’s Yeezus with a nerdy English major anecdote about reading 17th century poetry. The point is, I wanted to hear this thing from start to finish.

Yeezus isn’t one of those albums that you skim through, picking out songs that might earn spins on the radio, or certain tracks you think you will hear at the club.  Like every Kanye West work, modern-day concept albums, Yeezus is something you need to listen to all the way through while you attempt to process 1) what the hell he’s talking about it, 2) Where you recognize this or that sample from, and 3) if you even like it or not.

Well there I was, pouring a glass of scotch, waiting for the Yeezus leak to download in my iTunes (Forgive me, but I bought it on Tuesday).  The album certainly didn’t take me an entire night to finish, but by the time the last track, Bound 2, came to a close, it only felt right to start over again.  By the fourth listen through, I was buzzed; from the scotch, sure, but I was more intoxicated with cycling thoughts on how to digest the album.

Yeezus is one, continuous assemblage of cacophony; a ten-part thread of self-assured fury, cynical blasphemy, and raw sexual destruction.  Amid this dark, vicious blend that puts Kanye among music’s greatest rebels–Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Ministry to name a few—West manages to mix political protests against racism and consumerism with silly one-liners about impatiently waiting for croissants at a French bakery.  Compared to the symphonic greatness of Kanye’s last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is completely stripped of pop choruses and flashing lights.  Kanye must have been offended by Twisted Fantasy’s commercial flop (he should be, it was the best album of 2010), so he ditched all efforts to satisfy radio’s hunger for mainstream pop.

What emerges is a more confident, twisted, politically roused reinvention of 2008’s 808’s and Heartbreaks. And just like the mainstream’s initial reaction to 808’s, Kanye fans expecting to hear anything reminiscing College Dropout or Graduation are in for a surprise.

Yeezus’s  best track, “Blood on the Leaves,” circles around a racially charged  Nina Simone sample about lynching.  Just when you think Kanye is gearing to spit a manifesto on present-day racism, he picks up where he left off on Gold Digger” to vent about money-hungry women and gloomy relationships doomed by pregnancy, all of this on top of a bass-breaking sample from TNGHT’s “R U Ready.”  That’s when you know, to quote Yeezy, “something strange is happening.”

Speaking of strange, there’s “Hold My Liquor,” featuring Chicago’s own gangster child Chief Keef and indie icon Justin Vernon on the same track.  Whereas we know Chief Keef for his cocky, glock-slinging songs of rebel gang violence, he appears on this track as a sad rapper grasping for control in the spotlight of newfound fame.  Alongside Vernon’s trademark crooning, the duo produces a depressing chorus to parallel Kanye’s drunk escapades of car crashes and one-night stands: “Late night organ donor/After that he disown ya/After that he’s just hopeless/Soul mates become soulless/When he’s sober it’s over.”  While Kanye seems, at times, fully in control of his patented antics and self-glorified proclamations, he stops here to admit his imperfections in one of the album’s scattered moments of self-destruction and guilt.

For critics shouting blasphemy, twisting religion isn’t something new for Ye.  This is the same guy who came into the rap game shouting “Jesus Walks,” and penned the line “make a nun cum, make her cremate, yeah.”  “I Am A God” is next in the catalogue, as Kanye claims his crown as “the only rapper compared to Michael” before he has a conversation with Jesus about stacking millions.  While the track surely touts greatness, Kanye is not nearly as cocky as you might expect from the title.  Instead, we find him burdened with his iconic power, struggling to convey a message of truth to an audience of doubters.  He doesn’t exactly hide the Christ parallels.  The album is called Yeezus, after all.

“New Slaves” gives us the album’s most politically fueled verses, which is perhaps why Kanye chose to project the song on a worldwide platform (both on buildings and on his live SNL performance).  Here’s a world famous icon throwing present-day racism, in form of controlled consumerism and mass incarceration, into the crowd of countless white spectators.  It might be aggressive.  It might be angry.  But it is certainly not false.

Kanye decides to close out the album with its most Kanye-esque track, “Bound 2,” with his patented soulful repetition, clever comedic punches, and an angelic Charlie Wilson bridge that comes out of nowhere.  This far from a coincidental ending.  After an album’s worth of rule-breaking rebel rants and civil-rights-laced sex scenes, he steps back into his comfort zone to remind us that he can still reach back to his old College Dropout self, even when he’s exhausted: “But first, you gon’ remember how to forget/After all these long-ass verses/I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.” The point is, Kanye can break endless boundaries, step out of his own trends, take rap to weird, seizure-like levels, and we’ll still be bound to his music, his story, his life’s work.

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