#Eminem Week is over and it's time to figure out what it all means. Here's the biggest takeaway so far: You can't go home again; especially if you're MTV Europe's Global Icon, YouTube's first-ever Entertainer of the Year, and you learned that your dilapidated former Detroit home, featured on the MMLP2 and Marvel Comic Ironman covers, was further damaged by fire in a tragic turn of events all in the last seven days. On top of that there's the realization that today's savvy audiences are no longer checking solely for Slim Shady and his old shenanigans. That's why Eminem's latest album, MMLP2, is less of a sequel and more of an update to his overall operating system. MMLP2 fills in the gaps between his static and distinct personas, represented by his trilogy of albums that blew up the charts between 1999 and 2002, revealing a dynamic integrated perspective that rehashes old topics and adapts to new realities.
What's old? The three Ts - taboos, teases and throwbacks. Part of what makes Eminem work is that he's bringing a disgruntled unconscious out into the air. Tackling taboos like race, gender, sexuality, broken family, mental illness, fame and the state of hip hop itself in songs like "Berzerk," "Bad Guy," "Rap God," and "The Monster" generate controversy and provide an opportunity for public moral dialogue. However, most critics have panned all or most of these songs for various reasons, mostly perceived homophobic content. That's where we learn that shaming and blaming are increasingly ineffective strategies for dissent today. With first week sales of 792,000, it seems these criticisms draw more listeners to the artist making him number one. He admits it with lightning speed in "Rap God:" "To be truthful the blueprint's simply rage and youthful exuberance / Everybody loves to root for a nuisance." MMLP2 and its criticisms prove the blueprint still works, making Eminem the first act since The Beatles to place at least four singles in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100.
That's where the second T comes in: Teasing. On tracks like "Headlights," "Stronger," "Evil Twin" and "Hole," Eminem turns the vitriol away from others and onto himself by giving voice to vulnerability - as man, father, son, artist, and pessimist. In each of these songs the Detroit rapper takes on the issue of what effects music has on the listener, especially when he and his family are the listeners. Rather than minimizing his responsibility by switching his old music off or refusing to produce more of the same he updates his strategy. He knows "nobody wants a plain Eminem," so he reconsiders some problems with his work (not to mention his life) and holds himself accountable publicly. In this way he hopes his raps might "help some young people get through tough times." I can attest to the effectiveness of the rapper's strategy when one of my students confessed just this week that she has begun to reconcile with her own mother after years of estrangement upon listening to and internalizing Mathers's message in "Headlights." Maybe it really can get better.
That leaves the third T. Throwback tributes to the rap gods that came before and inspired him like Buckshot and Black Moon in "Don't Front." In an age where listeners and artists alike are hyper aware of racial and cultural appropriation (i.e., Macklemore, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus) Eminem gives instructions for doing the right thing. Rather than follow the popular "look white but sound black" formula, he implements the "look white and sound white" while honoring music that's undoubtedly rooted in African American and Latino histories. To that end Eminem uses rock in a different way than acts like Run DMC, Kanye or Jay Z used it. With a high-pitched voice and beats that sample Zombies, Fontana and the Mindbenders, Joe Walsh and Billy Squier, just to name a few, MMLP2 sounds white and very working class. Songs like the Rick Rubin-produced "Berzerk" bring the point home by drawing generational lines among white musicians across genres.
At the same time Em's lyrics pay homage to many of the best lines that black rappers ever spit; from Naughty by Nature, to Rakim, to Snoop and Dre, to Method Man and Redman, Pharoahe Monch, Ice T, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Moon and Nicki Minaj. By doing so he cites and honors the artists who've influenced and supported him and, for the first time ever, covered a rap song in its entirety. Not only does this remake remind us that Eminem was a hip hop head and student long before he became an entertainer, but that he is unwilling to divorce himself from the Black, Latino and White artists who came before. He may now be feeling like a "Rap God," but he also knows that some will always see him as an undocumented immigrant to hip hop culture even after nearly 15 years of residence and contribution. This is especially the case when he gets even more airplay from mainstream top 40 stations than he does from rhythmic and rap radio stations.
What's new? Change. Well, sort of. It's the power to transform realities that has drawn people of all backgrounds, including Marshall Mathers, to hip hop for over 40 years. Deliver a few lines, or 160 rhymes per minute as in MMLP2, lay down a beat, and something seems to come to life in your ears--an echo sounds, a new engine roars. And then the magic happens. Hip hop becomes the tool that could become any tool at all. "Survival" says it plainly: if you're smart enough, willing to adapt just enough, then you can make and manipulate anything you can imagine with hip hop. Is it any wonder that the single is cross-promoting Call of Duty: Ghosts and that its video is literally the merger of physical and digital worlds?
In the end, MMLP2 is one rapper's statement on growing up alongside a diverse, tech-oriented and multi-generational society that's going through profound growing pains. MMLP2 turns its dramatic characters and listeners, normally at the mercy of their environments, into gods, gamers and coders who can to some degree re-imagine them. It also distills an icon that, until now, was so complicated that he simply turned most reasonable people off. MMLP2 blends physical and digital worlds to make Eminem more accessible so a much larger global audience has access to "Slim's Pickins"... if they don't mind being cut sometimes by the sharp curves and edges it presents.
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