When news broke in August that Eminem had completed a new album, it arrived in a fashion nearly identical to the way Jay Z had announced his own record just two months earlier: in a tech-related TV commercial (Samsung for Jay Z, Beats headphones for Eminem) that aired during a much-watched special event (the NBA finals, the MTV Video Music Awards).
Both rappers, veterans of a joint 2010 stadium tour, even touted their involvement with Rick Rubin, the bearded super-producer celebrated for his truth-teller vibe.
That’s about the extent of the similarities, though, between “Magna Carta Holy Grail” and “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” due officially Tuesday following an unauthorized leak this week.
Where Jay Z’s album felt chilly and glazed-over – the work of a king in search of a specific mandate – Eminem’s scorches, spewing emotion as hot (and as damaging) as lava. If anything, the record shares more with “Yeezus” by another of Jay Z’s recent touring partners, Kanye West, who like Eminem appears to view aging as a sharpening process.
But really “MMLP2” just demonstrates how singular a presence Eminem at 41 remains.
Though he’s unquestionably one of the form’s giants – his last album, 2010’s quadruple-platinum “Recovery,” was that year’s biggest-selling – he seems no less a hip-hop outlier today, in an age of sensitive smooth talkers such as Drake, than he did when he emerged amid the bling purveyors of the late ’90s; his outsized feelings still set him apart.
Perhaps that’s why his primary reference point here is one of his own records, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” the 2000 disc (titled after his birth name) that solidified Eminem’s reputation as a superstar and a serious artist.
The rapper has said the new album isn’t a sequel to the earlier set so much as a “revisitation” of its themes: his relationships with his mother and his ex-wife, for instance, and the toxic effects of celebrity.
Yet he hardly made an effort to avoid the throwback tag, with jokes about Monica Lewinsky and the Backstreet Boys, as well as sizable samples of well-worn hits by the Zombies, Joe Walsh and Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders.
“It’s like I’m in the dirt, digging up old hurt,” he admits in “Bad Guy,” which by the end of its seven minutes has turned into a deranged monologue by the little brother of the obsessed fan from Eminem’s “Stan”; later, “Legacy” recalls “Lose Yourself” in its account of the direction that music provided to a young man badly in need of some.
And then there’s “Berzerk,” the Rubin-produced Beastie Boys homage in which Eminem urges, “Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop and start it from scratch.”
But if the layers of nostalgia caking “MMLP2” make starting from scratch impossible, Eminem sounds more alive – angrier, yet more fully present – than he has in years, including on the sometimes-dreary “Recovery,” where he play-by-played his crawl back from drug addiction.
His intricate rhyming in tracks like “Love Game” and “Evil Twin” is nearly without equal, an opinion Eminem appears to share, as only one rapper, L.A.’s Kendrick Lamar, is permitted a guest spot – a rarity by cameo-lousy 2013 standards. (Female singers, including Rihanna and Skylar Grey, are more plentiful.)
Which isn’t to say that “MMLP2” lacks for varied voices.
As always, Eminem keeps flipping between his alter egos, a means of demonstrating his technical ability – he even nails Yoda’s knotted syntax in the “Star Wars”-referencing “Rhyme or Reason” – but also of putting some psychic distance between the real-life man and his often-horrific words.
There are lots of those here, as in the harshly homophobic “Rap God” and “So Much Better,” in which a breathless narrator unloads against an ex by tweaking one of Jay Z’s hits: “I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of ’em, I need a machine gun.”
Is that “I” Eminem? Marshall Mathers? The gleefully hateful Slim Shady? It’s as unclear as the rapper, a target who’s learned to move, wants it to be.
He seems more eager to take ownership of several openly confessional tracks, including “Headlights,” which proposes a détente with his mom, and “Stronger Than I Was,” an almost embarrassingly vulnerable piece of self-help testimony that Eminem produced himself – at least in part, one presumes, to protect lines like “Why do you date me if you say I make you sad?” from better judgment.
But even in his rare clunky moments, Eminem burns with purpose on “MMLP2.” And if you don’t like what he (still) has to say, there’s a chance he doesn’t either.
“The Marshall Mathers LP 2”