Let’s go ahead and assume you’re familiar with the name Eminem. If you aren’t, you definitely weren’t at Bonnaroo last weekend, and you more than likely stumbled onto this website by mistake, and we thank you for your accidental readership. But if you’ll just hit that little button at the top of your browser that’s shaped like a house, that’ll get you back to where you want to be. Everyone else: “Welcome to the album”, as Shady says on album opener, “Welcome 2 Hell”.
Royce da 5’9”, however, you may not be as familiar with, and that’s sort of how he likes it. Royce is a fellow Detroit rapper, and has maintained a personal and professional relationship with Eminem since the mid to late ’90s, after being introduced to one another through mutual Detroit acquaintance, the late MC Proof. The man’s an underground heavyweight, with five solo albums under his belt, and two with his project Slaughterhouse – a collaboration with fellow underground rappers Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, and Crooked I. But it wasn’t until very recently that he started gaining limelight attention, mostly due to Eminem’s signing Slaughterhouse to Shady Records back in January.
Em and Royce have pursued very minor collaborations here and there, most notably on the song “Bad Meets Evil” on Eminem’s major label debut, The Slim Shady LP. But Royce was a Detroit underground champ, and Eminem was a budding rap superstar, and they eventually went their separate ways (this was partially due to a falling out between Royce and members of Shady’s own project D12). But after 13 years, the time has come for the old friends to rebuild some burnt bridges and dust off an old project, Bad Meets Evil.
Previous collaborations were built under the blueprint of Royce da 5’9” representing the “bad,” and Em manning the “evil.” It’s a theme they follow on this EP (if you can call a nine track, 40 minute effort an EP), Royce throwing down some majorly angry raps, and Slim doling out his signature blatantly malevolent rhymes for the entirety of the album.
On the whole, it’s an effective strategy. Eminem’s irrefutable star power complements (and sometimes boosts) Royce’s untamed swagger, making for a very winning combination. Two very different worlds collide on this album, and it’s nice to see the two rappers stepping out of their respective comfort zones. Slim Shady’s top 40 pop sensibility and Royce’s “underground only” mindset are both tossed out the window, and the two arrive at a middle ground that’s explosive and exciting. The rap itself is absolutely second to none. Lead single “Fastlane” is hands down one of the best hip-hop tracks of 2011, and the narrative “The Reunion” sets the precedent for the rest of the duo’s antics, and presents it in a captivating way.
Unfortunately, the natural propensity of both MCs for raw hip hop only minimally softens the blow of this album’s major flaws, which are separated into two very distinguishable categories: weak-minded production accompanied by absurd, silly hooks, and an utter lack of variation behind each track. The result is something pretty formulaic: a very Eminem-sounding beat intro/weak verse by rapper A/weak verse by rapper B/chorus/strong verse by rapper A/strong verse by rapper B/chorus/outro. And even though this is completely acceptable on a collaborative rap track, it grows tiresome after it’s done on all nine tracks here.
This album’s biggest downfall, though, lies in its production. Not only are the beats very predictable, they’re occasionally abrasively silly. Remember how Relapse sounded all kinds of bizarre, and it seemed like the contemplative, serious Eminem was gone and his Middle Eastern alter ego had completely taken over? It’s a similar feeling for 85 percent of this album. Eminem’s lines are fairly controlled, but the subject matter is frivolous, and the hooks are downright far-fetched. Take the Mike Epps vocal-sampling track “I’m On Everything”, for example: “I’m on syrup, painkillers, cigarettes, weed, Hennessy, vodka, ha ha, huh, ha ha, huh.” Bear in mind, that’s the hook, so you hear that obnoxious thing a half dozen times. It’s obviously a track about drugs and alcohol, but it’s so obvious and presented in such an obnoxious way that it’s hard to enjoy anything that’s going on. This track in particular is a direct re-visitation of the Relapse era we all hoped Em had put behind him. And, as the album progresses, we see that less-lovable, silly side of Eminem more and more, and Royce switches his usual style to match the mood.
The epitome of this trend hits on the seventh track, a collaboration with Bruno Mars, of all people, entitled “Lighters”. This one’s downfall isn’t so much its silliness, but its completely paradoxical mashup of one of mainstream rap’s biggest badasses, one of underground’s most devoted stalwarts, and a smooth crooner. The hook is schmaltzy beyond belief, and does not belong anywhere near a legitimate rap track. Mars sings, “This one’s for you and me/Living out our dreams/we’re all right where we should be/with my arms out wide/I open my eyes/and now all I wanna see/is a sky full of lighters/a sky full of lighters.” The hook is catchy enough, and it’s conceivable that this chorus would be quite palatable on a solo record, or even a collaboration with someone like Willow Smith or Far East Movement. But it is so far from home next to the hard verses of two of rap’s bad boys.
Even though Eminem soars at times and reaches down to help an old friend and colleague spread his wings, this effort is a step back for both rappers. Eminem suffers because this marks a very obvious deviation from his course to “recovery”, and shows a big return to the legend’s goofy side, one that’s been immensely criticized in years past. Royce da 5’ 9” suffers because this is his major label debut, in a way. This album is going to receive quadruple the press that any of his previous efforts did, and it shows the gritty MC getting silly with Eminem and not bringing everything he’s got to the table. On a major label debut, there is very little room to mess around and get experimental, but that’s precisely what he’s done. It’s not a great effort from either end of the duo, and it frankly leaves one wondering what could have been for such a promising pair.