Remember Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill? Yeah, so does Eminem. If you doubt it, take one listen to the absolutely inessential "Berzerk" single from the forthcoming Marshall Mathers LP II, where he makes the emphatic case that we ought to "take it back to straight hip-hop."
It's not terrible advice, I suppose, but Em, a dude in dire need of reinvention and reinvigoration, is perhaps not the best rapper to make the case.
Though his fun tracks are, okay, fun, Eminem has always been at his most exciting when he's unguarded, reflective, and dark: The Eminem Show standout "Cleanin' Out My Closet," or even the plodding, addictive "Mosh" from 2004's uneven Encore. "Berzerk" has no such darkness or political bent; it's a naked grab at being an unrepentant party track, ala Andrew WK. But here's the problem: who's spinning shit that sounds like "Berzerk" at parties anymore?
And if you are looking for a Licensed to Ill throwback, aren't you more likely to just, you know, play Licensed to Ill?
It's unfair, I know: if some rapper no one has ever heard of came out of the gate with the throwback style that Em's aping on "Berzerk," you'd likely have gone dizzy already from a bunch of critics tripping over themselves to praise it. But coming from Eminem, the track just feels like a retreat, an older dude trying to sound like a younger one. (Em's 40; the Beastie Boys were just about drinking age when Licensed came out.)
This might all be forgiven if there was something--anything--redeeming in the track, but there's precious little to love here. It's loud and irritating and nearly unmelodic, and the electric guitar isn't exciting or edgy, like in the also-Rick-Rubin-produced "99 Problems"; it's just obtrusive and silly.
So, okay, the production sucks. But Em's lyrics are even worse: dude's laying out platitudes like "Life's too short to not go for broke," and making middle-school references to "toe jam." Em's immaturity has always been part of the point, I know, but he's capable of so much more than "Yessiree Bob" and Kid Rock references.
And that's really the issue here: Eminem is incredible--as in top-20-emcees incredible--when he's just being honest. And there's something inherently dishonest in "Berzerk," a talented guy wearing a hat that just doesn't fit him, stealing a style he was never really known for in the first place.
Sure, some of Eminem's stuff is going to be exciting if it comes on a party--"White America," for sure, or "The Way I Am"--but the point here is that these aren't "party tracks." Leave that to Licensed to Ill or the folks bothering to use post-1986 production on their shit.
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What's most frustrating, of course, is that you know Eminem isn't out of things to say, or fresh ways to say them. I just wish he'd stop retreating and retreading.