Don't be fooled: Eminem's latest, "The Marshall Mathers LP 2," is not a sequel to his gloriously unhinged 2000 rap masterpiece, "The Marshall Mathers LP," as the title initially implies. Instead, it's a summation of a mission statement, a revisitation of what the 41-year-old rapper has done best in 15 years at the center of the maelstrom that is pop culture.
Unlike "Recovery," his Grammy-winning 2010 comeback album where he laid bare his battles with drugs and depression and reclaimed his lyrical and commercial dominance, "MMLP2" is a return to a more confident and familiar Marshall Mathers.
Everything he's done best is here, from noirish murder fantasies with devilish twists to big-chorus pop songs with moments of great humor, anger, fear, self-reflection and verbal virtuosity impossible to untangle in just a few listens.
There are violent scenes, scatological jokes and the kind of moments that will continue to rile gay and women's rights groups. But at mid-life, his most memorable songs are those in which he reveals what he's learned over the years, whether in metaphor or open letter.
It's satisfying on every level as a story, as poetry, as a performance and it's also filled with hidden meaning and insight into how Eminem views his own fame. Few in rap reach this complex level of artistry, and listening to it unfold when compared with the often monochromatic world of popular rap in 2013 makes it even more vital.
Eminem has always been at his best on his storytelling songs, and opens "MMLP2" with one of his most meaningful. On "Bad Guy," he revisits "Stan," his song about fan obsession from the original "MMLP." This time around, Eminem's protagonist is Stan's brother, Matthew, who's playing out a revenge plot in which he turns all the rapper's vitriol back on him.
"I'm the nightmare you fell asleep in and woke up still in/ I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen/ Perfect time to have some remorse to show for your sin/ No, it's hopeless, I'm the denial that you're hopelessly in."
Toward the end of "MMLP2," Mathers stuns in another way, penning an apology to his mother, Debbie, the target of so much anger over his recording career. "Ma, I forgive you/ so does Nathan yo," he raps on "Headlights," featuring fun.'s Nate Ruess. "All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both."
There are lots of strong moments between these two revealing bookends. Sure, the album could have benefited from tighter editing and a slightly shorter tracklist, but a little bit of overindulgence is forgivable.
He's at his best on the cuts that chop up chunky classic rock songs in unexpected and clever ways. First single "Berzerk" merged Billy Squier's "The Stroke" with The Beastie Boys, a clue to what was to come. On "Rhyme or Reason" he delightfully employs The Zombies' "Time of the Season" as a launching point as he channels Yoda and reminds us where he stands in the rap world: "So as long as I'm on the clock punchin' this timecard, hip-hop ain't dying on my watch."
He pulls off an Evel Knievel-level stunt by rapping and singing over Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," turning it into a pro-Detroit anthem among other things. And that leads us right into arguably the most-anticipated song on the album, "Love Game," featuring the indomitable Kendrick Lamar.
The two lay down verses so dense over a sample of Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders' "Game of Love" that they're dizzying and will take dozens of listens to tease out the meaning.
One thing is immediately clear, though: Eminem is the only rapper to survive a guest appearance from the cutthroat Lamar. And really, what more do you need to know?