BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD If the collaboration of Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 seems a bit odd, or AstroTurf-y, it’s because it is. What’s true is that Eminem and Royce had a track together on 1999’s Slim Shady LP titled “Bad Meets Evil” and recorded a handful of non-album tracks, including a track titled “Renegade,” which eventually was re-dubbed with Jay-Z vocals and became part of the classic Blueprint album. However, “Bad Meets Evil” is more revisionism than reality. Eminem’s group D12, particularly lead-member Proof, had a falling-out with Royce and released a barrage of ‘diss’ tracks towards one another for several months. Although Eminem never publicly spoke against Royce, it’s well known that Eminem and Proof were childhood friends, and Eminem would likely stand with Proof against Royce, if asked. Royce’s D12 ‘beef’ resulted in his excommunication from the Aftermath community and placed Royce into relative obscurity. His next two albums Death is Certain and Independent’s Day were clunky, and mostly unheard by most hip-hop listeners outside of Detroit. In fact, it wasn’t until Royce hooked up with three other B-list rappers (Joe Budden, Crooked-I and Joel Ortiz) and formed Slaughterhouse, hip-hop’s version of “the Ginyu Force,” that Royce Da 5’9 once again mattered to hip-hop. You’d think by this time Eminem would have forgotten about his early-career colleague, Royce. Eminem has his own clothing line, and just released Recovery, the highest-grossing hip-hop album since the turn of the decade.
However commercialization is the biggest sin an artist can commit in the eyes hip-hop critics, and Recovery was no exception. Perhaps his worst album since 2004’s Encore, Eminem was slipping back into the clichéd 8 Mile-era inspirational-rapper archetype that he was trying to escape with his 2009 violence-laden come-back album Relapse. What better way to reshape the Slim Shady character than by working again with one of Slim’s first collaborators? On paper it seemed interesting, if not half-baked. I’m not sure if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are still on speaking-terms … but Hell: The Sequel is the equivalent of their unhappy reunion.
Unfortunately, Hell: The Sequel is a testament to not letting bygones be bygones. Eminem is a complex rapper, a master with structure, with the talent of Shakespeare but the maturity of Bart Simpson. 1997-era Eminem was talented but sloppy, and a rapper like Royce Da 5’9 made a decent side-kick. In 2011 Eminem is a superstar whose fame is only matched by his ability. He’s constantly found in out-of-place settings, like Lil’ Wayne tracks, or collaborations with a now-defunct Dr. Dre. Yet he is unmatched in his field, I can think of a handful of contemporaries, including Black Thought, Mos Def and Blu, who can match his stylistic prowess with a brilliant character to match. Royce Da 5’9 has none of this. He’s bland. His style contains no pre-thought, or at least no perceived pre-thought. Royce’s performance throughout Hell: The Sequel is a game of catch-up. How could Royce possibly endeavor to out-rap Eminem? Eminem can burst into double-time and triple-time lyrics in a way that makes every other rapper seem incompetent. He makes it look easy. Royce’s excursions into double-time rhymin’ is like watching a fat kid running a relay race — maybe he can keep up, but it definitely does not look easy, or fun.
Royce’s inability is something I can look past, and something most listeners can look past, as long as the final product is focused and complete. Q-Tip can rhyme circles around Phife Dawg, but nobody can fault The Low End Theory because of it. Listening to this album from the start, you’d get the impression that Hell: The Sequel is an authentic album, pre-conceived to please the fans of horrorcore-era Eminem. Songs like “The Reunion” sound more terrifying than any track on Tyler’s Goblin and show that Eminem still knows how to piss a couple people off. “A Kiss” even revives a pop-music-hating Marshall Mathers, dissing Lady Gaga, calling her a man… which also has pissed quite a few people off. “I’m On Everything” is a quasi-revival of D12’s “Purple Hills,” a drug-induced track dedicated to the art of taking every drug there is. However, the veil of authenticity is lifted with the Bruno Mars-featuring “Lighters,” which is a step beyond being pop drivel. Though I don’t recommend playing the track all the way through, even the most forgiving fans will not be able to stomach the slobber-fest of a verse Royce spouts: “…tell Shady I love him the same way he did Dr. Dre on the Chronic” and he finishes with “Now I’m the second best, I can deal with that.” Well, I’m pretty sure that’s an admission that even Phife Dawg wouldn’t admit to. Perhaps Bad Meets Evil is a appropriate title for Royce and Eminem. The part of Evil is played adequately by Eminem, and Royce Da 5’9 is the definition of bad, if not horrible.