For "The Marshall Mathers LP 2," Eminem set himself a challenge: to re-create the moment when people first heard him on record
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Even at the peak of his popularity, when he was raising hell on MTV, inspiring bottle-blond dye jobs in middle schools across the country and selling more records than any other artist of his generation, Eminem never got good at being famous. He's still awkward in interviews, still lives in his native Detroit and maintains the same core group of friends he's had for most of his adult life. Two of his best albums, 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP and 2002's The Eminem Show, were largely about either rebelling against the spotlight or reflecting it back on those who deigned to wield it. And on latest single "The Monster," featuring Rihanna and released Oct. 28, the rap megastar's discomfort with stardom remains front and center.
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"I wanted the fame, but not the cover of Newsweek/Oh well, I guess beggars can't be choosy," he rhymes. "Wanted to receive attention for my music/Wanted to be left alone in public, excuse me."
"I remember it felt like shit was just flying by me and nothing really seemed real," Eminem says, recalling the media frenzy of his early years, during which he tangled with, among others, GLAAD and Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney. "When I was making records, I would just take my frustrations out about that. I mean, fuck, here it is 2013 and I still don't really have a total grasp on it yet and understand it."
The price of fame is just one of a handful of favorite topics that Eminem, now 41, wrestles with once more on new album The Marshall Mathers LP 2, due Nov. 5 on Aftermath/Interscope. He's dubbed the project a "revisitation" of the first Marshall Mathers, taking the opportunity to re-examine "themes and chapters that I felt like I hadn't closed."
With its invocation of his seminal breakthrough album-which, at 10.8 million copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, is also his best-selling (The Eminem Show is a close second at 10.3 million)-Eminem knows his eighth solo LP is likely to be subjected to intense levels of scrutiny. But he's never been the type to shy away from a challenge. Asked whether he's worried that people will take the project the wrong way or compare it unfavorably with its predecessor, he displays a convincingly Zen-like detachment.
"I kind of just make what I make and however people take to it is how they take to it, or don't take to it," he says. "I knew that it would have to match a certain intensity and vibe and feel in order to call it [The Marshall Mathers LP 2]. I want to say I'm confident that I've done that, but it's up to the listener to decide."
The idea of taking a trip down memory lane first came to him after recording "Hell: The Sequel," his 2011 collaborative EP with fellow Detroit rapper and old friend Royce Da 5' 9". On a creative streak after the project had finished, he recorded a handful of solo songs that friends, including manager Paul Rosenberg, said reminded them of the old days.
"He was messing around with a few things and I told him some of the delivery and vocal tones he was using felt reminiscent of his older stuff," Rosenberg says. "That planted the seed in his head."
Eminem adds, "One of the things I thought might be cool to try to accomplish was to see if I could bring it back and remind people of the first time they ever heard me on a record. I wanted to try and recapture that nostalgic feeling."
As effective as nostalgia may have been for the creative process, it was of little solace to Rosenberg and Interscope, who faced the task of marketing the sequel to the 14th-best-selling album in the history of SoundScan in a radically changed industry environment. To approximate the omnipresence that Eminem enjoyed in the era of "Total Request Live" and Tower Records, his team crafted an aggressive and forward-looking campaign that relied heavily on strategic partnerships.
November marks five-and-a-half years into the second act of Eminem, who, in the years following 2004's "Encore," famously ended the first by self-immolating on Vicodin, Valium and Ambien. In 2006, best friend and lifelong confidante Proof was gunned down in an altercation outside of a Detroit nightclub. The tragedy turned a long-simmering romance with prescription drugs into an all-consuming affair, and he spent days on end in a hazy stupor, emerging either cruel or incoherent on the occasions when he could get out of bed. Rock bottom was his bathroom floor, where his kids found him after an accidental methadone overdose two days before Christmas in 2007. Doctors later said he had been just two hours away from death.
"When he wasn't sober, he was just so unfocused and not himself that it was difficult to connect with him," Rosenberg recalls. "There were times when you literally couldn't have a normal conversation with him. And when you can't have a conversation with someone or connect with them on a human level, you feel like you've lost them. It was horrible."
The lost years ended formally on April 20, 2008, when Eminem finally got sober with the help of a rehabilitation counselor, whom he still sees, though lately on a less frequent basis. But the artist who came out on the other side of addiction was changed. "Relapse," his 2009 album and first attempt at recording after getting clean, was a bleak and discomfiting glimpse at how dark things had become. Under the cover of trusty alter ego Slim Shady, the album was unrelenting in its exorcism of Eminem's most ghoulish demons.
A year later, he took another first step toward the light with the companion album "Recovery." Part return to form, part new chapter, the album featured him fashioning hits out of inspirational anthems including "Won't Back Down" (featuring P!nk) and "Not Afraid," which gave him his fourth career No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. On album cut "Talking to Myself," Eminem attempted to make amends, like any good 12-stepper, for being less than himself in years prior.
"Them last two albums didn't count," he rhymed. "Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing 'em out."
"Things are a little more calm for me now," Eminem says. "There was a time when everything was kind of flying by the seat of my pants and I kind of didn't know what was happening to my life. That certainly did get the best of me, with drugs and the pressure of all that shit. I'm at a different point now, but I still want to rap with the same energy and intensity and passion as before because, at the end of the day, this is what I love."
The Marshall Mathers LP 2, title notwithstanding, is as much a continuation of the Eminem story as it is a return to signature themes. For every throwback song or reminder of his humble origins-including "Legacy," which features the singer Paulina doing her best impression of Dido circa "Stan"-there's one that explores yet uncovered sonic or thematic territory. "The Monster" sports a synth-based buoyancy that borders on dance music, "Rhyme or Reason" samples the Zombies' '60s psych-pop standard "Time of the Season" and "So Far..." finds Eminem, who has been a dad for the duration of his career, officially rapping like one: "What the fuck I got to do to hear this new song from Luda? Be an expert at computers?" he complains.
This Eminem is a pop oddity, a rap rabble-rouser who became a global phenomenon, self-destructed, survived and, somewhere along the way, grew up. The existence of an eighth album from someone who once ruthlessly ridiculed anyone older than 35 is no less a cause for celebration among his core fan base, which has proved remarkably resilient.
In 2009, after a five-year absence (and a year after MTV gave into its reality TV identity by finally pulling the plug on "TRL"), Relapse sold an impressive 609,000 copies in its first week. The next year, Recovery fared even better, selling 741,000 first-week copies and going on to become the best-selling album of the year.