November 30, 2023

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Eminem: Curtain Call 2 Album Review

In his prime, controversy was Eminem’s secret sauce. As a white rapper with bottle-blonde hair and boy-band looks who liked to joke about indoctrinating children with antisocial thoughts, Slim Shady was the straw man onto which square America projected its most deranged insecurities about the fragility of its youth. He was so good at his job that by the time he dropped Relapse—his 2009 comeback record following years of heavy pharmaceutical use—his most violent bars now just felt like the work of an institutionally entrenched artist playing the hits. After all, millennials who’d listened to Eminem’s early records in middle school were by then in various stages of young adulthood, and most of us turned out fine.

So as he entered his second decade of fame, Eminem adopted a new identity: an extremely famous, super-intense dude who rapped really complicated raps. But beyond this basic foundation, he became a chimera, his body of work an assemblage of often disparate personas, subject matter, and sounds. At times, he’s chased trends and tried to reinsert himself into the zeitgeist; at others, he’s retreated inwards, reflecting on his legacy or finding yet another way to recreate past selves. That his music lacks perspective or personality beyond the fact that listeners immediately know that it’s Eminem rapping hasn’t hampered him from becoming the best-selling singles artist of all time, and it certainly hasn’t kept him from continuing to be a reliable hitmaker. But these qualities make Curtain Call 2, a double-disc compilation of his post-comeback greatest hits, feel like a portrait of an artist who’s spent the past 13 years going in every direction.

Eminem has made some great music during this era—tracks like Revival’s “Offended,” an off-kilter lyrical workout over a tightly wound Charles Bradley loop; his guest spot on Nas’ “EPMD 2,” in which he delivers a reverent ode to the golden age of hip-hop; Relapse’s “Deja Vu” which combines the fearless inventory-taking of 12 Step programs with blistering internal rhymes. There’s probably a Spotify playlist out there that’s scrounged up the best of Em’s latter-day catalog and uses it to make a case that, despite one lackluster album after another, Eminem is still capable of reminding us why we used to stan the guy who coined the term “stan.”

But rather than panning for gold in the mud, Curtain Call 2 contents itself with being a damningly accurate reflection of what Eminem’s been up to lately. He gives us goopy pop songs like “Lighters” and “Nowhere Fast,” and maudlin deconstructions of toxic relationships like “Love the Way You Lie” and “Headlights.” There are anthems for personal uplift and/or weightlifting (“Not Afraid,” “Cinderella Man,” and “Phenomenal”) and the Rick Rubin and DJ Khalil-enabled dalliances with rap-rock (“Berzerk,” “Won’t Back Down”). It’s topped off with a song about killing people (“3 a.m.”) and one about how tough it is to be Eminem (“Walk on Water”), with some r/hiphopheads-baiting fast rap (“Rap God,” “Godzilla”) thrown in for good measure. Listening to 34 tracks of this stuff in a row—especially considering that Eminem was one of the last major rappers to cut overtly homophobic language out of his rhyme book—is a grim experience. By the time Ed Sheeran shows up on Disc 2, his vocals feel like the sweet release of death.

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