Eminem – “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”

(Photo Credit: http://www.hiphopdx.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Rap God,” “Evil Twin”

Sequels are bold claims. Sequels can seem like an easy way to grab an audience. “Hey, you liked it the first time, how about we do it all again?” But sequels demand the same quality as their predecessor, and rarely deliver. For every “Terminator 2″, there’s three “MIIB”s. You could argue that this is Em’s third sequel – “Recovery” followed “Relapse,” “The Eminem Show” was followed by “Encore.” But this one’s different, for two reasons. The first LP came out in 2000, and it’s been a long 13 years since then. Also, there’s the title – fans were expecting another messy and jaw-dropping album of Eminem rapping about himself and how he is about to fly off the rails. And, well, he delivers. In fact, he delivers almost completely consistently in what’s one of the best rap albums of the year, hands down.

What made Eminem so popular (and controversial) in the ’90′s was his mixing of humor and very, very violent lyrics. And this LP, nostalgia or not, is full of both. He comes out of the gate on a 7+ minute opening track “Bad Guy” threatening to bury two different people alive in a song where he twice gets to a screaming level. There’s a sound effect of him killing people in a skit that follows. On one of the better tracks, “Brainless,” he laments on how if he had been smarter growing up, he would’ve become a criminal (and namedrops plenty of famous ones). And in the intense and affecting finale, “Evil Twin,” he raps about growing up with his wild anger tendencies. Even at 41, his internal anger issues still sound horrifyingly believable.

But it’s not all violent – there’s humor, both dark and laughable. The deliriously enjoyable “So Far…” sees him rapping about being approached by fans when he’s trying to do remedial tasks like take out the trash (not clean his closet, unfortunately), all set over a sample of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” He raps like Yoda over a sample of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” on the song “Rhyme or Reason.” And the namedrops and references are as on par as they were in the 90′s. He quotes the famous magnets line from Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracle.” There’s just an endless supply of clever lines. “I’m Lysol / I’m household” is one of my favorites.

The album is not without it’s faults – two major ones. The first is the length. This album is 16 songs and 78 minutes. I can see why it was never cut down, nearly every song is gold and not a single moment is wasted, but it still feels far too long. A premium edition of the album runs at 21 songs. This may actually warrant a double album, because none of these songs should be cut out. The other problem lies, surprisingly, in the production. It’s slick, of course, but the music behind Eminem is often just loud enough that it’s tough to actually hear the man himself. With Dr. Dre’s (still alive) and Rick Rubin’s names all over the album, it’s pretty disappointing that the balance is off so frequently.

One six-minute track on this album is called “Rap God.” That’s a boastful claim, but that’s what this album is – it’s Eminem. He’s running the show. His rapping sounds better than it ever has, even in his early years. There’s one point in the song where he’s rapping so fast that Twista is being put to shame (remember him?). Em’s name is on the album’s title for a reason. There’s only a handful of guest spots – two from Skylar Grey, one from Nate Ruess (of fun.), a forgettable re-pairing with Rihanna, and one with Kendrick Lamar. Lamar – who is seen as a rapidly rising star – is the only other rapper here, and he’s kept in place by a more wild Eminem. We may have written Em off, or even forgotten about him, but there’s no denying he’s back. And he’s still rap royalty. “The Marshall Mathers LP 2″ isn’t perfect, but as far as sequels go, it’s bordering on “Godfather Part II” in a world of “Police Academy 6″s.

If you like this, try: Kanye and Jay-Z have abandoned their throne – it’s open. Em’s return was surprising, but one of the other viable candidates, Drake, is just as moody, shocking and thought-provoking. I recommend his very recent “Nothing Was the Same.”

Drake – “Nothing Was the Same”

(Photo Credit: defpenradio.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Tuscan Leather,” “Own It”

Contrary to Drake’s previous albums, and most albums by any known rapper, there is only one major guest spot on “Nothing Was the Same”. And it feels very, very deliberate. Jay-Z shows up on the album’s last track, “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2″ for a lengthy guest verse. This placement signifies something, a very boastful claim. With Kanye West’s “Yeezus” outcasting him from Top 40 radio and commercial hits, and with Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” being a massive and unpopular stumble, this leaves the throne at the top of hip-hop suddenly open. Drake, already immensely popular, has laid claim to it. It’s a bold risk for a young musician, but the combination of emotions displayed across 2011′s “Take Care” and “Nothing Was the Same” prove that he might just be the next hip-hop king. Jay-Z’s verse feels like a bowing out, relinquishing the throne while still promising not to fade away.

The album’s first track, “Tuscan Leather,” is over six minutes long and self-aware about it’s length. Twice he raps, “How long this n***a gonna spend on the intro?” His self-parodying is dripping with boldness – he acts as a critic, gawking at Drake’s unconventional song structures. The rest of the track is mainly claims about wealth and luxury, fairly typical claims but ones that are made believable just by sheer effort on Drake’s part. And this song sets the album’s tone – unconventional song structures, and surprisingly effective effort and emotion from Drake. The complex man that we know – half sad and misunderstood, half rich celebrity – is the same man that comes through on “Nothing Was the Same.”

Boasts about having millions come alongside musings to figuring out your true friends on an album that’s often slightly unsettling. Love songs are honest and devastatingly poetic, and the boast songs always come close to overboard without ever reaching. Songs blend together instead of standing alone. When “Own It” ends and “Worst Behavior” starts, whisperings of the words ‘Own It’ continue in the background. And Drake knows when to take rapping to the backseat – slower songs are half-sung, decently. And an occasional guest spot from relative unknowns break up the tone. Jhene Aiko is more of a presence on “From Time” than Drake is, his rapping coming secondary to her singing.

Drake has a strong personality, and it helps to add depth to what might be an otherwise average rap album. It suffers from typical tempo issues, but it is lyrically original and honest, as Drake becomes the semi-reluctant heir to the hip-hop throne. Kanye and Jay-Z seem willing to step aside, at least for the time being, and leave their throne to their younger prodigy.

-By Andrew McNally