Looking back now and then isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Just ask Rick Rubin. The Def Jam founder and hobo-bearded producer-for-hire is a guru of going back to basics, helping everyone from Johnny Cash to Adele shave away the bullshit and get right to the heart of their music. Eminem’s comeback singles have generally conformed to a template – comedy voice, scandalous contemporary reference, fart noise – but the Rubin-assisted ‘Berzerk’ is very much a new look. Punchy rap rock and itchy turntablism of a genus that folk stomped their Adidas pumps to back in the ’80s, it recalls both early Beastie Boys and Run DMC (two groups, of course, with whom Rubin has been intimately acquainted).
Executive produced by Rubin and Dr Dre, Eminem’s eighth album is a sequel, of sorts, to 2000’s ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’. Like its predecessor, the cover pictures Mathers’ childhood home in Detroit’s run-down 8 Mile, and what’s within both revisits and further elaborates on the Eminem mythology. Album opener ‘Bad Guy’ begins as a fantasy in which Mathers is kidnapped by one Matthew Mitchell – brother of ‘Stan’, the titular stalker from ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’. But come the final verse, we discover that the kidnapping is only a metaphor, and Marshall is merely hostage to his own tormented psyche. Has he lost his powers? Will he end up “the laughing stock of rap”? It’s these fears that power him on ‘MM2’, an album he threatens might be his last: “Behold the final chapter in the saga/Trying to recapture that lightning trapped in a bottle”.
By and large, he succeeds. Where 2009’s ‘Relapse’ and the following year’s ‘Recovery’ faltered, here he hones in on exactly what he does best. Seldom has Mathers displayed such vigour as on ‘Rap God’, six minutes of semi-automatic rhyming and spleen that hits supersonic pace four and a half minutes in. ‘Rhyme Or Reason’ spins out a sample of The Zombies’ wistful psych hit ‘Time Of The Season’ to rage against his absent father – familiar ground, true, but brilliantly done, Em fuming with scary intensity. ‘So Far…’ mashes up bratty pop-punk chorusing and Creedence twang in a yee-ha redneck celebration, while Kendrick Lamar is on hand to quite literally dial in a verse on ‘Love Game’, its sticky-palmed perving just about excused by its infectious hook (sampled from ‘The Game Of Love’ by British invasion band Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders).
Eminem’s never quite shed the school bully mentality that punching down makes you powerful – still lyrically hate-fucking pop starlets of the past, still slinging around the word “fag” with tedious impunity. Like Jerry Sadowitz, he’s a self-proclaimed monster, a fuck-up just like the rest. On ‘Asshole’, he fesses his own hypocrisy (“If anyone talks to one of my little girls like this I would kill ’em”) and invites Skylar Grey to send him up in the chorus: “Everybody knows/That you’re just an asshole”. He audibly struggles to be conciliatory, though an olive branch of sorts is extended to his mother on ‘Headlights’.
In places, too, he feels stuck. If you’re eager to find out what Slim Shady makes of 2013, what he reckons to Miley Cyrus or cronuts, tough: his reference points remain Britney, Monica Lewinsky and Star Wars (a Yoda impression! So original is that!). But he never sounds like a relic. By dredging through his past he’s made a record that, while not quite a masterpiece, can sit alongside his best.
- Release date: 18 Nov, 2013