There are maybe only two or three artists in the history of music that have played as important a role in my life as Eminem. He was the big one for me for years. From the release of ‘My Name Is’ in 1999 until around the time when I first listened to Encore all the way through in 2004, there wasn’t another artist on the planet who came close to him for me. I saw him live multiple times, bought the t-shirts and the posters, knew every word to every song, watched 8 Mile until I could recite the whole script, and even considered bleaching my barnet until I was warned that my black hair would probably turn orange instead of blonde. And then, in reality, Eminem went kind of shit. Encore was patchy as hell compared to the run of The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show but when he came back in 2009 with Relapse I think I only listened to it once. A lot had changed in that time, both in my life and in his, so maybe I just wasn’t connected in the same way – but, to be honest, I couldn’t help but feel that Relapse just wasn’t good.
And I never quite got back into the groove with Slim. I tried a couple of times. I’d like a single and I’d tell myself that the new album would connect in the same as those initial ones had, but then I’d never really give them the chance to grow. Or I’d hear a song so bad that I’d give up. Yet, whenever someone asks who my favourite rapper is I still think of Eminem – despite the fact he has released six studio albums that I have totally ignored. That’s how strong his original impact on me was.
Part of me, the nostalgic part, has always wondered if I was missing out. Maybe Marshall is still the best. I’ve considered throwing myself into the last decade or so of his career many times but have not really found the opportunity. And then I saw that Curtain Call 2 was on the way. One of the most important artists of my lifetime, someone who spoke to me in such a strong way for so many years, was presenting a chance for me to get back on board. I’ve spent a couple of weeks with the compilation now and I’m ready to share my findings, but I don’t really look at this as a review. Not in my typical fashion. This is more an attempt to wrestle with my views of a man I loved but have lost, an artist that defined me for years.
It doesn’t start well. The first five songs of this almost three-hour long compilation are a steaming garbage fire full of human excrement. ‘Godzilla’ was raved about at the time of release but it’s one of many examples of a man who has forgotten that you need more than skill to make a song. What is he talking about? ‘Lighters’ is the worst, though. The Eminem I knew and loved would never have allowed such a horrendous, cringeworthy chorus from Bruno Mars. ‘Cinderella Man’ can get in all the bins. Bombastic shite.
But that is followed by a momentary reminder of the Eminem of old. While he was often known for his violent lyrics, his many controversies, and the comedic nature of some of his more poppy hits, at his best he was delivering honesty and emotion with clever wordplay and original rhymes. On the Beyonce featuring ‘Walk On Water’ he does some of that. Many songs on this album discuss the way he is viewed and disrespected by others in the game, but this is the song when he does it with some vulnerability and truth. It feels real. And he has a control that matches his boasts.
‘Rap God’ is similar to ‘Godzilla’ in some ways. By that, I mean that it is clear that the main reason for this song to exist was for Marshall to demonstrate his exemplary flow and cadence, the almost unrivalled skill as an MC that made him the biggest rapper in the world. The difference between this and ‘Godzilla’ is that ‘Rap God’ is fun and sounds great. While I totally understand why people would take issue with a lot the lyrics here, it should be impossible for anyone to hear the verses and not understand why Eminem is considered as one of the greatest MCs of all time. He smashes it on this song.
Follow that with ‘Love The Way You Lie’, which I kind of love even though I feel like I shouldn’t, and the tide is starting to turn for me. Maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe Eminem has been smashing it for his whole career and the haters have simply turned my head.
Maybe I should bleach my hair, after all.
But wait. What the fuck is this ‘Won’t Back Down’ monstrosity with Pink? Why does this exist? Aiming for the power of songs like ‘Till I Collapse’ and ‘Say What You Say’, instead it sounds like a drunk couple shouting at each other while doing karaoke. Horrible. A lyrical disaster, too.
It doesn’t get much better for a while, either. When Eminem was an underdog, the self-praise was kind of charming and exciting. On ‘Higher’ it sounds like someone trying to convince themselves they’re still relevant. Why you would do that over a tune that sounds like it was rejected by Aerosmith is a mystery to me.
‘Berzerk’ sucks. ‘Not Afraid’ is another time when the honesty is refreshing. But it’s an average song. ‘From The D 2 The LBC’ sucks. ‘Nowhere Fast’ sucks almost as much as ‘Lighters’. It starts with the line ‘I feel sorry for this beat’ and I know exactly what he means.
‘Fall’ sticks out like a sore thumb on this album, but in a good way. Is this a coherent beat? A great flow? Some aggression from Em that doesn’t sound desperate? A good chorus sample from Justin Vernon?
Unbelievably, though, we still have 20 songs left on the album at this point. After ‘Fall’ there is not another song of positive note until ‘The Monster’, which is a pop banger. But between those songs it’s a run of stinkers that fully justify the negative view of Eminem’s last decade. Eek. What the fuck is ‘Space Bound?’
I’m still pulling for Eminem at this point, I still want it to happen, and I am glad that there have been a few moments that I could get on board with. But we’re getting to a point when it isn’t even worth discussing the songs anymore. There’s not much else to say.
My time with Curtain Call 2 suggests that Eminem has pretty much done three things with the back end of his career:
- Brought in a megastar to flop a chorus on an angry pop-rap track. With mixed results. The two Rihanna tracks are guilty pleasures of mine, but the tracks with Bruno Mars, Pink, Gwen Stefani, and Ed Sheeran are the worst things on offer here.
- Rapped really fast while talking about how great he is. Again, occasionally this works. Usually, it doesn’t.
- Offered brief flashes of honesty and a sense of a person who, underneath the bluster, has continued to struggle and fight to find a way to cope and come to terms with the changing views of him and his traumatic past. ‘Walk on Water’ is a good example, but it isn’t the only one.
The truth, though, is that the overwhelming majority of Curtain Call 2 does nothing to move the needle for me. I am not, in any way, surprised that there are moments of true quality. You don’t release albums like those first three (after Infinite) and then never create another good song. But, if this is the greatest hits since 2009, then I am thankful that I haven’t spent time with the songs that didn’t make it. Because a lot of what is here is average to awful.
Does this do damage to my view of Eminem in general? Not really. One of the things that stands out on this record is the man continually striving for the love and recognition that he had early in his career and, if anything, this album makes me wish even more for a great comeback in the future. So much on this album feels like he is stretching for something. It’s kind of sad to me that someone who was so influential, so important, and such a good storyteller in his early career, can’t simply rest on those laurels. Writing crap for years doesn’t take away all the masterpieces that came at the start. I just hope that he can see that one day, too.
Words by Fran Slater