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■ THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP 2
Don't be fooled: Eminem's latest, "The Marshall Mathers LP 2," is not a sequel to his gloriously unhinged 2000 rap masterpiece, "The Marshall Mathers LP," as the title initially implies. Instead, it's a summation of a mission statement, a revisitation of what the 41-year-old rapper has done best in 15 years at the center of the maelstrom that is pop culture.
Unlike "Recovery," his Grammy-winning 2010 comeback album where he laid bare his battles with drugs and depression and reclaimed his lyrical and commercial dominance, "MMLP2" is a return to a more confident and familiar Marshall Mathers.
Everything he's done best is here, from noirish murder fantasies with devilish twists to big-chorus pop songs with moments of great humor, anger, fear, self-reflection, and verbal virtuosity impossible to untangle in just a few listens.
There are violent scenes, scatological jokes, and the kind of moments that will continue to rile gay and women's rights groups. But at mid-life, his most memorable songs are those in which he reveals what he's learned over the years, whether in metaphor or open letter.
It's satisfying on every level as a story, as poetry, as a performance and it's also filled with hidden meaning and insight into how Eminem views his own fame. Few in rap reach this complex level of artistry, and listening to it unfold when compared with the often monochromatic world of popular rap in 2013 makes it even more vital.
Eminem has always been at his best on his storytelling songs, and opens "MMLP2" with one of his most meaningful. On "Bad Guy," he revisits "Stan," his song about fan obsession from the original "MMLP." This time around, Eminem's protagonist is Stan's brother, Matthew, who's playing out a revenge plot in which he turns all the rapper's vitriol back on him.
"I'm the nightmare you fell asleep in and woke up still in/ I'm your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen/ Perfect time to have some remorse to show for your sin/ No, it's hopeless, I'm the denial that you're hopelessly in."
Toward the end of "MMLP2," Mathers stuns in another way, penning an apology to his mother, Debbie, the target of so much anger over his recording career. "Ma, I forgive you/ so does Nathan yo," he raps on "Headlights," featuring fun.'s Nate Ruess. "All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both."
There are lots of strong moments between these two revealing bookends. Sure, the album could have benefited from tighter editing and a slightly shorter tracklist, but a little bit of overindulgence is forgivable.
He's at his best on the cuts that chop up chunky classic rock songs in unexpected and clever ways. First single "Berzerk" merged Billy Squier's "The Stroke" with The Beastie Boys, a clue to what was to come. On "Rhyme or Reason" he delightfully employs The Zombies' "Time of the Season" as a launching point as he channels Yoda and reminds us where he stands in the rap world: "So as long as I'm on the clock punchin' this timecard, hip-hop ain't dying on my watch."
He pulls off an Evel Knievel-level stunt by rapping and singing over Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," turning it into a pro-Detroit anthem among other things. And that leads us right into arguably the most-anticipated song on the album, "Love Game," featuring the indomitable Kendrick Lamar.
The two lay down verses so dense over a sample of Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders' "Game of Love" that they're dizzying and will take dozens of listens to tease out the meaning.
One thing is immediately clear, though: Eminem is the only rapper to survive a guest appearance from the cutthroat Lamar. And really, what more do you need to know?
— CHRIS TALBOTT,
■ JERICHO ROAD
Eric Bibb (Stony Plain Records)
Singer-songwriter Eric Bibb is a 62-year-old bluesy-folk musician with a warm, rich baritone voice and rootsy Delta acoustic guitar style who's already had a distinguished career.
It includes 35 albums in four decades. His last release, "Deeper in the Well," won a 2013 Blues Music Award in the Acoustic Artist category and his one before that, "Brothers in Bamako," a critically acclaimed pairing of Bibb and West African singer/guitarist Habib Koite, received a Blues Music Award nomination, as well.
But his latest album, "Jericho Road," a career-defining achievement and one of the most unpretentious and memorable discs of the year. His 13 all-original songs and two bonus tracks drip with civil rights overtones and a modern, uplifting quest for dignity. Musically, it's a hybrid of blues, folk, gospel, soul, and world beat.
Lyrically, it's a message of hope and resilience - not a protest album per se, yet one in which Bibb clearly has a yearning for better days and better relationships for the world. It has his trademark unplugged acoustic aura, but with a smartly produced level of sophistication.
Bibb was the godson of activist-actor Paul Robeson and grew up in a family that was friends with Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Josh White. Now living in Europe, he offers a worldly vision, does a little preaching, and offers everything from extreme sensitivity to songs with anthem-like quality, with titles such as "Freedom Train" and "With My Maker I Am One."
One of the hardest to shake is a short ditty called "They Know," based around a beautiful metaphor that puts the anticipation of social movements in the context of birds knowing it's time for another seasonal migration. "In every feather, they can feel it," Bibb sings. "They know."
Bibb explains in his liner notes that the disc's title refers to the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a stranger in need along the road between Jericho and Jerusalem after religious leaders of more affluence and social standing had passed by the man in need.
Bibb said he has lived by the message of that story, which is - that, ultimately - you cannot save yourself without saving others. Bib said he believes people need to have a heart, which is exactly the theme that "Jericho Road" embodies.
— TOM HENRY