Rebellion ends at the moment of embrace. There’s only so long you can convincingly rage against the machine, when your rage is what fuels it. This moment is where we find Eminem and M.I.A., each with a new album — his “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” hers “Matangi” — and engaged in alternate versions of “This Is 40.”
The barbarians have become brands capable of altering corporate bottom lines. Eminem has hawked oceans of Brisk Iced Tea, fleets of Chryslers and more records than any living rapper. An Oscar gleams on the 41-year old’s mantel in his Kmart mansion in suburban Detroit. Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, 38, has similarly turned cultural sedition into immense success. The daughter of a revolutionary displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war has her own Versace line. Her young son is a scion to the Seagram’s liquor fortune.
Eminem may shout out his underground bona fides on the new album’s “Legacy,” but he’s as responsible as anyone for the mainstreaming of hip-hop. The first “Marshall Mathers LP” transcended genre. It was wincingly profane, emotionally unnerving and captured the millennial zeitgeist. As Eminem put it: The underground spun around and did a 360.
You could use the same phrase to describe M.I.A. flipping off 111 million viewers during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. The act earned her a $1.5 million lawsuit from the NFL. A response comes on “Matangi’s” “Boom Skit,” in which she assails those angry that she tried to “steal Madonna’s crown.” Her politics are muddled, but the message is clear: neither truffle fries nor television time mitigate her desire to savage those “who don’t get our underground.”
Eminem’s definition of “underground” specifically referred to a schism in hip-hop culture; M.I.A.’s encompasses the global disenfranchised. The first “Marshall Mathers LP” became a touchstone because Eminem spoke for the millions who dressed, walked and talked like him. “Matangi” implicitly reproaches that same fair-haired, light-eyed majority — or anyone reaping the dividends of economic inequality. While their creative differences might be stark, both spend much of their latest records exploring what’s left to rebel against.
M.I.A.’s fourth album is a dialectic disguised as a dance party. In interviews given last year, she blamed delays on record label executives dismayed at her shift towards positivity. Still, there’s plenty of vitriol aimed at multinational oligarchs, government surveillance and those “whose guns point the wrong way.”
“ATENTion” spotlights the plight of dispossessed refugees, complete with an uncredited writing assist from WikiLeaks founder and M.I.A. comrade Julian Assange. There’s “Bring the Noize,” which takes its name from Public Enemy, and rants against banks, bad tattoos and how she’s the “overweight, heavyweight, female Slick Rick.”
But “Matangi” also doubles as an exploration of metaphysical and carnal concerns. Its title comes from the Hindu tantric goddess of speech, music and knowledge. There are two songs with the lecherous crooner the Weeknd. The opener is “Karmaggedon,” which reconciles her sky-is-falling past with a nascent desire for inner peace.
Even at her most mellow, M.I.A. remains a pop subversive. Whether you buy into the quasi-revolutionary rhetoric or not, she resists initiation into the realm of top 40 cliché. There are no melodramatic ballads, cynical radio grabs or cameos from the hot rapper du jour. “Matangi” is a pan-global, post-Internet tantrum of bhangra beats, hip-hop, Bollywood music, dancehall, EDM and the occasional jazz harp. While it can get tedious, it finds M.I.A. refining her sound and self-identity. It’s engaging but still keeps you at arm’s length. It’s club music for those who can’t countenance (or afford) the bottle-service scam. The influences are acknowledged without nostalgia. What’s left to rebel against is converted into a multimedia art experiment.
Eminem’s aims are comparatively vague. “I’m all out of Backstreet Boys to attack,” he laments on “Evil Twin,” a rare highlight from “MMLP2.” The semi-sequel finds him at a crossroads, scanning the horizon of broken-up boy bands and faded pop stars he once reviled. “Who’s left? Lady Gaga? Mess with the Bieber? Nah,” he continues.
It’s an honest admission that the war is over. Yet much of the album ironically finds him lobbing stale and dated pop culture salvos towards a world where CNN brings next-day analysis of Miley Cyrus twerking. He’s the last one making jokes about Kevin Federline, Lorena Bobbitt and O.J. Simpson.
On the first “Marshall Mathers LP,” Eminem used his whiteness to incisively examine deeper racial hypocrisies. Its successor finds him adrift in a world where the other most popular white rapper advocates for same-sex marriage and grandpa sweaters.
The same homophobic slurs, mommy issues and violent threats toward women remain. But whereas Eminem once used them in service of jokes and cohesive narratives, he now uses them as a trigger for nostalgia.
The Rick Rubin-produced lead single “Berzerk” intimated that “MMLP2” would be Eminem’s throwback album, but Rubin’s contributions seem to mostly comprise exhuming old Zombies and Joe Walsh loops over which Eminem can express his confusion about Facebook and Internet downloading. Eminem’s syllable manipulation and rhyming agility remain staggering. But success has validated his worst musical decisions and Sam’s Club tastes.
Kendrick Lamar is the album’s lone hip-hop guest, and the dream collaboration is squandered on awkward sex jokes on “Love Game.” The beat for “Rap God” sounds made for a rave in a straight-to-DVD vampire movie. If “Survival” feels made to cross-promote a video game for hyper-violent adolescents, that’s because it was (“Call of Duty: Ghosts”).
The album opens with a seven-minute plus sequel to “Stan”; it replaces the original’s psychological unraveling with sub-“Saw” schlock. Nate Ruess of fun., Skyler Gray and Rihanna pop up elsewhere to belt Eminem’s hokey, group-therapy choruses. The Dr. Dre beats are gone, substituted with monotonous martial drums and squealing rock-rap guitars for the Nickelback demographic.
Since “Lose Yourself,” Eminem has increasingly incorporated atonal, nasally hooks and grumpy-dad growls. But they lack build and pacing — crescendos come as randomly as a mad dog barking at a ghost. He mistakes architectural complexity for advancement. The raps are technical metal guitar solos that go nowhere. The flows are dazzling but lack the elasticity and playful wit of Eminem’s early brilliance.
Albert Camus described a rebel as a “man who says no.” “MMLP2” is the sound of Eminem saying yes. In 2000, he was the monster. In 2013, he’s “friends with the monsters under his bed.” Marshall Mathers may still command a nation of millions, but he’s lost the ability to see their faces.
Weiss is a freelance writer.