I've been listening to Eminem's MMLP2 for nearly five days straight now, and the entire time I've had a vague, roaming feeling that something was missing. I just wasn't feeling the album the way I should, but couldn't place why. It felt like if your roommate replaced your toothbrush with a different color toothbrush when you were at work. You'd come home, walk into the bathroom, some part of your brain would know something was off, but you wouldn't be able to pinpoint what changed, and it'd drive you insane.
Eminem is still obviously an elite rapper. His punchlines might have lost some of their punch, but he's still a master technician on the mic. That wasn't it.
At first I was a little disappointed, both in the production and songwriting, but the songs have become more embedded in my brain the more I listened. That wasn't it.
MMLP2 has it's non-rappity rap moments, most prominently "So Far," but I came to complete peace with a poppier Eminem three years ago on "Recovery." That wasn't it.
No, it was something deeper than even the music that was missing, but it wasn't until I went back and listened to the MMLP that I figured out what it was. Starting almost the minute "My Name Is" dropped in 1999, Eminem fearlessly played the role of hip-hop's most controversial figure.
He held up a mirror to mainstream America's failings and hypocrisies, and much of America hated him for it. He was a celebrity that burned down America's shrines to celebrity every chance he got. A rapper who walked the razor-thin line between rap fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity, so expertly that even when he was rapping about murdering his wife, there was always some part of you that thought he might, maybe, someday actually kill his wife.
Some white hip-hop heads tried to dismiss him as a fad, some black hip-hop heads hated having to include a white rapper in the "GOAT" discussion, and a large swath of white America openly considered him a traitor to the race. (Check out this old school Howard Stern interview for a reminder of how easily people threw the "wigger" label at Em.) His concerts were picketed, his label boycotted; it all started with hip-hop, but what made listening to Eminem so enthralling was the knowledge that the music was so much bigger than just hip-hop.
In 2013, though, is Eminem really still that controversial? Sure, there are still people who will argue that he's over-rated, just like there are some people who will argue the moon landing was faked, but something like 98% of hip-hop agrees he's an all-time great rapper. Thanks in large part to his groundbreaking, the mere existence of a white rapper isn't particularly remarkable anymore.
And his music—when's the last time an Eminem song really caused a legitimate problem? While Rick Ross is getting dropped from Reebok for his lyrics, while Lil Wayne and Tyler the Creator become the subject of corporate bans and condemnation from revered families, Eminem has emerged as one of corporate America's go-to artists. While Kanye tweets and ignites a firestorm of coverage and discussion, resulting in one of the highest rated "showdowns" in modern television, Eminem goes on ESPN for a halftime bit and just acts kind of weird. For every Eminem hater, there are 100 stans ready to shout them down.
And yet, Eminem fills MMLP2 with songs and references to his role as a lightning rod for controversy that largely only exists in his, and our, memory. He's a bad guy, an asshole, a berzerk evil twin, all of which is still true in terms of his general demeanor, but no longer true in terms of his role in American society. I don't know if there's a single shocking line on MMLP2. Where once we got shots at a recently paralyzed Christopher Reeves and pop darling Britney Spears that had moralists outraged, now we get lyrical shots at a two-year-old Fabolous and Ray J feud and, again, a now disgraced Britney Spears. Even his continued use of "faggot," and the media's response, feels more like a tired, practiced song and dance than any true controversy.
In large part, Eminem's no longer at the center of American cultural controversy because he removed himself from it. In fact, he has to be hip-hop's most reclusive famous rapper. Kanye, JAY-Z, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent have all been nearly constant presences in the headlines for years. Em, on the other hand, has comparatively secluded himself in his home and eschewed the social media revolution, as he also mentions repeatedly in MMLP2. He's refused to feed the internet's ceaseless need for headlines, and the manufactured controversies that generate them, and in the process has lost his place as hip-hop's most controversial figure.
And who could blame him? Who wants the paparazzi at your house at four in the morning, especially when you're focused on recovering from a drug addiction that nearly killed you. Who wants that? I'd much rather have an alive Eminem focused on making great music on MMLP2 than an overdosed Eminem who never got the chance to make anything beyond Encore.
Because this is 2013 and we're all so primed for controversy and ready to argue, there are (obviously) going to be some people who read this as some sort of criticism of Eminem, although I frankly can't see how. He's in a better place as a person and a human being then he's ever been, and still making good to great music—that's only a good thing. He hasn't sold out, or fallen off, or gotten off, or whatever other insult you imagine I'm slinging at Marshall Mathers. "More controversial" has very little to do with "best." MMLP2 will most likely prove to be a better album than Yeezus, although Yeezus will undoubtedly remain far more controversial. This is about American culture and his place in it, and in 2013 it should, perhaps ironically, be no more controversial to say "Eminem isn't very controversial anymore" than it is to say "people aren't buying CDs very much anymore."
Eminem hasn't changed. In fact, he's stayed almost stunningly consistent over the 14 years since his debut album dropped. As he makes clear in "So Far...," he may be a millionaire, but he still lives in a white trash world. Instead, it's the world's that changed, in significant part because Eminem changed it. So even if he made an album that was musically equivalent to the original MMLP in every way, it'd still feel different, it'd still lack that "oh shit, this guy is a human timebomb" element of danger that pervaded so much of his pre-Encore music. (At least for those old enough to remember how seismically MMLP shook the world in 2000.)
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to listening to MMLP2, and I have a feeling I'll enjoy it much more now that I've pinpointed that missing feeling.