Last week rapper Tyler the Creator made news as one of the first to comment on ‘Shady XV’, tweeting
“i love you marshall [Eminem], you are my favorite rapper but dude shadyxv is f**ing ASS hahaha why wont someone who loves him tell him NO.”
He would remove the tweet soon after sending it but by then it was too late. The Odd Future emcee’s opinion is not necessarily an unpopular one, at least in the first round of reviews. In celebration of Shady Records 15th year as a company, ‘Shady XV’ is a double album featuring one disc of brand new material from Eminem and the Shady Records crew (Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, D12, and others), supported by lead single “Guts Over Fear” which dropped August 25th. The second disc is an alternative take on a greatest hits album, featuring actual hits like “Lose Yourself” and “In Da Club” along with songs the label considers underrated hits like “You Don’t Know” (from ‘The Re-Up’) and Slaughterhouse’s “Hammer Dance”. It includes no tracks from any Eminem solo releases, intended to be a celebration of the record label for which he is the flagship artist rather than his career. The first disc, though, plays like a new Eminem record with a scattering of label-mate guest appearances and half the tracks produced by Em himself, at least a few of which, I imagine, are holdovers from ‘MMLP2’. While the track selection on the second disc is underwhelming, looking more like a collection of former Shady acts (50 Cent, Obie Trice and even though they are still signed and “making” music, D12), it does successfully take the listener through the various eras of Shady Records (remember “Purple Pills”?) and highlights the more recent (and better) signings in Yelawolf and Slaughterhouse (as well as Bad Meets Evil). Much of the negative press comes from the tactic of presenting what are truthfully lesser, underrated-for-a-reason tracks from different periods of Shady Records’ history as a worthwhile compilation. The only veritable “greatest hits” other than “Lose Yourself” are 50’s which to me carries the familiar odor of labels attempting to profit from acts no longer signed. The more altruistic corollary to that argument is that every act that’s been on Shady Records is represented on the disc and songs like “Cry Now” and “The Setup” are included with that intention. Though not dazzling by any means, ‘Shady XV’ provides an accurate, scattershot portrait of the label and brand behind Hip Hop’s best-selling artist, intrinsically asking what value it holds and where it may be headed next.
News of the double album first officially broke on June 3rd when Paul Rosenberg, Em’s manager and president of Shady Records, tweeted the words “Shady XV”, with no further explanation. After that, little pieces of information and media began to trickle out of the Shady camp and the marketing campaign may actually have been more captivating that the album overall. It began with a Vine video of Em revealing a sheet with the album artwork on it while giving the finger. Shortly thereafter we got brief interview and audio clips talking about points in the label’s past, most interestingly this video of Em talking about the “lost” take of “Lose Yourself” that he himself didn’t remember recording. The “SHADY CXVPHER” video emerged on November 11th, garnering more than 3,000,000 views in two weeks, showcasing the 4 Slaughterhouse emcees, Yelawolf and Eminem each in different visually stimulating hometown locations doing a solo “freestyle”.
Finally in the weeks leading up to the release, “Shady Quinceanera” circulated on Facebook and other social media mashing the wholesomeness of black and white Looney Tunes style cartooning with Shady’s trademark fucked-upness. The pieces all worked together to build anticipation and provide the sense of an inside look at the last decade and a half of Shady Records. I actually think the project was under-hyped, given the coveted Black Friday release date and the roster of acts that could have been used to promote it. Yelawolf has said he was surprised to hear that he’d been chosen for the compilation and while the Slaughterhouse boys are all active Tweeters, the album hasn’t been drilled onto our social media newsfeeds in recent weeks the way one might expect.
The album kicks off with the title track, five minutes of Em just going in lyrically over another Billy Squier sample (“My Kinda Lover”). “Know you’re really tired,” he says, “of me sampling Billy Squier”, a reference to MMPL2’s “Berzerk” which samples Squier’s “The Stroke”. There is a sense on this album (as there was on MMLP2) that Em knows he’s rehashing (subject matters, gripes, lyrics), genuinely unable to help himself, but that he also knows his rehashing is better than new stuff from 90% of the rappers out there. There’s a complacency when he talks about it, though, that hints at it being more than a repeated joke, perhaps revealing him to be more stuck in a stalled gear than we realize. There’s some interesting production on this album, but not enough to be able to call it a complete work. Quirky samples on “Fine Line” and “Psychopath Killer” add to the album’s character, but there is a recurring flatness behind the lyrics that leaves the listener wanting.
Em and Shady Records are in need of their own ‘Chronic 2001’ and perhaps ‘Shady XV’ has laid the groundwork for just such an album. There is a lot of life to the label, a lot of creative energy and there should be plenty of new ground to explore. Is Marshall now just too old or is that spark there waiting to be lit?
The other question that remains for the label is do they know how to really push an album so as to not waste the talent sitting on their roster? ‘Welcome to: OUR HOUSE’ and ‘Radioactive’ did well but neither made as much press as the actual news of the groups’ signing to the label did. As we await the forthcoming ‘Love Story’ from Yelawolf and ‘Glass House’ from Slaughterhouse, both slated for 2015, we will see if Shady 2.0 is in full effect or still working to find its footing.
But those are questions about what comes next for Shady Records. As ‘XV’ gets into its second track we get our first sampling of the Shady roster, with Yela on the hook and Crooked I and Royce da 5’9” in the first two verses of what is officially a Slaughterhouse track, “Psychopath Killer”. I won’t say much about the song except that the Boi-Ida produced foray into the dark and razor-sharp is one of the three best tracks on the album. The use of Yela’s silvery tone and double time delivery fit the hook perfectly while the three emcees release a series of lyrical strikes, including these lines to open Crooked I’s verse:
It’s an elite drinker, it’s the ringleader
I’m a deep thinker, I’m a street preacher
With a street sweeper full of heat seekers
In your Jeep speakers I’mma keep ringers
I don’t need heaters, I got the meat cleaver
Welcome to the slaughterhouse
“Psychopath Killer” is followed by “Die Alone”, yet another love-hate track about Marshall’s ex-wife Kim. While the progression of his anger/depression through the three verses of the song is nicely structured to three distinct phases of loss, this one I could do without. Things pick back up though, with “Vegas” which feels like it belongs on “Yeezus”. The dirty sound to the production that then bleeds over to the lyrics halfway through Em’s verse gives the feel of a ride into Las Vegas long before the hook comes along to make the song’s only actual reference to the city. It’s Bad Meets Evil on this track, Em’s tag-team partnership with Royce da 5’9” that began on the song of the same name on the ‘Slim Shady LP’ and was then resurrected for the 2011 album ‘Hell: The Sequel’. It’s a Slaughterhouse appetizer before moving to the group’s “Y’all Ready Know”, possibly the best song on the album. The song is reminiscent of the tracks that got them started as a super-group on their 2009 self-titled debut (independent, not on Shady Records) like “Onslaught 2” and “Move On” with around-the-horn verses and piano and scratch driven production, here from the illustrious DJ Premier. It’s hard to pick just one but the standout lyric here has to be this one from Kxng Crooked once again:
Slaughterhouse set it off
Even got bitches wavin’ our flag; Betsy Ross
Old school Chevy, the head is off, decapitated Impala
Heavy ‘lac from the weight of the llama
Still bear arms like a shaven koala
How you thinking like a faded neurology student
Is prudent when chasing a dollar
So never mind
Next the album hits the lead single “Guts Over Fear” with Sia sounding like Rihanna on “Diamonds on the Sky” and Em rehashing his ‘I-wrote-this-for-the-depressed-kid’ motif, before moving to Yelawolf’s country bounce “Down” (second best on the album). Yelawolf is the most exciting member of Shady Records to me, unique in style and ginsu-sharp on the mic. “Down” is no exception, though its tone is more fun and bouncy than hard-hitters like “Pop the Trunk”, “Billy Crystal” and “Hard White (Up in the Club)”.
While it certainly isn’t “ass”, ‘Shady XV’ only gets about halfway through before losing steam. “Down” is followed by the D12 letdown “Bane”. D12 has got to be my least favorite current member of the Shady roster, despite a few bright spots throughout the years, including “Purple Pills” and “My Band”, both featured on the second disc. And “Bane” brings on more disinterest from me, other than one key redeeming thought: If they had, in fact, gone for a real, cohesive album, rather than just a smattering of good tracks, I’d say “Bane” and “Vegas” would be on the same album. A dark, twisted journey (again, I think of ‘Yeezus’), that could have involved all the groups. For this album as it stands now, I would have gone with something more “up” from the Detroit group, though it would always be dark and cheeky. There was a time when D12 was a deranged/comical crew that seemed sellable and marketable. Now they just seem like Marshall’s forgotten cousins that he feels obligated to bring along.
“Bane” is followed by a trio of what seem to me to be MMLP2 cast-offs – Em lingering in the stalled gear I mentioned before, knowing he’s rehashing but doing it anyway because he never sounds less than great while he’s doing it. The songs just aren’t always all that good.
And while that rehashing that’s become part of his persona can, when done correctly such as several points on “Fine Line” and the fantastic “So Far…” from MMLP2, provide some depth and body to an Eminem solo album, on XV Em needed to be the exciting, shining light of his label and in the album’s second half he falls short. “Detroit vs. Everybody” is good but not as dope as expected, though Danny Brown lights it up and the inevitable iterations from Rap’s other major cities will be something to watch for in the next couple months. Em has always repped strongly for the Motor City and it’s the right final note for the album. It just doesn’t pack enough punch to make up for the boring tracks that precede it.
I am an unabashedly devout Eminem fan. He’s probably my favorite rapper, though I always have difficulty committing to that, and he’s certainly my biggest influence as an emcee. He’s one of the few acts that I will still always go buy their full album every time they drop. I suppose, therefore, that I carry a certain bias when I look at his new material, perhaps seeing the glass-half-full section of each release enough to enjoy it overall. I do admit, though, to being discontented, along with millions of Eminem fans such as Tyler the Creator, by a seeming lack of inspiration in his last two releases despite a lyrical skill set that only seems to sharpen. “Can You Still Have Any Fun, Marshall?” is the real question, and perhaps the acts that make up Shady 2.0 can light that spark.
What does the album say about Shady Records, both what it’s done over the past 15 years and where it’s headed? They had some real strong beginning energy when 50 Cent signed in 2002, which they then used to bring along acts like D12 and Obie Trice, also recent signings. In 2004 the label began Shade 45, their satellite radio station hosted by DJ Green Lantern and it seemed the Shady brand was steadily growing, with only up to go. By the time the label had gotten to 2006’s ‘The Re-Up’, though, it was clear that their roster of talent, other than 50 and Em himself, wasn’t as interesting or successful as they had hoped. Obie Trice would defect in 2008, Stat Quo, Bobby Creekwater and Cashis would move on not long after.
…Drugs, Proof’s death, rehab, ‘Relapse’, ‘Recovery’…
The “Shady 2.0” period, as it’s been called, began with the 2011 signing’s of Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf and there’s something that feels more organic, more connected about that roster than the acts on ‘The Re-Up’. Who knows how the path would have been different if Em and Royce’s relationship hadn’t deteriorated early on; would there even be a Slaughterhouse? In any event, in this current 2.0 phase Shady Records is hopefully ready to be the venerable label (and not just a vehicle for Eminem) that they began as with 50 and have always hoped to be. ‘Shady XV’ shows hints of that throughout, underwhelming as it may be. Here’s hoping that Year XV is the start of a flourishing new era for Shady Records and not the beginning of a sputtering end.