“Fast.” That’s how Eminem described the making of The Marshall Mathers LP 1 in 2013. He was on Big Tigger’s guest chair for another edition of Rap City, rap’s longest running hip hop TV show. Its jovial host, sitting forward with cue cards in his lap, asked Em for a single word on each of his albums – how he was feeling and how he may’ve laid it down. And he just says, “I almost didn’t feel in control of my life anymore, and all I wanted to do was rap [...] I still just want my records to be heard by enough people, to be respected by my peers. That’s all I want, know what I’m saying? I don’t want to go to this or that show, three shows in one day, this club appearance — it’s just a lot. At that time, I wasn’t ready for it, and I don’t think nobody was.”
Given the context, you’d think he’d have more on his mind. A few months before the Big Tigger conversation, The Marshall Mathers LP didn’t need a number. There was merely one: an only devil child that couldn’t keep its middle finger down. Speed, ferocity and abstract astonishment were likely to flavor a record that sold 1.76 million copies in its first week and became the biggest hip hop album of all time. Eminem’s commercial horrorcore classic was everywhere in the early noughties and beloved for different reasons by many people. Critics loved the intensity, the Looney Tunes shock of Slim Shady taking a chainsaw to middle America; kids liked the South Park jokes, sang along to ‘Drug Ballad’ and enjoyed their introduction to cloning at the 2000 MTV Awards. It was a dark album that managed to be sad and bad and sometimes hilarious. 22 years after its release, Marshall Mathers 1 is one of the last records that tugged at many parts of the cultural zeitgeist at once. Following it up took some balls.
So in that same interview, Eminem mentioned being led to the album again, how he recorded with Royce Da 5’9 and a newfound sense of fun on the mic, moving towards what he only describes as “the same tone” as his most celebrated project. But if I were Big Tigger and had a black brick garage with a couple of Eminem photos on the walls, I would’ve asked, What do you mean? What is the tone to you, Mr. Mathers? Because the album only half carries it. On Marshall Mathers 2, there are minor keys, slasher audio of rain and slammed doors, but this time, they’re just as important as the huge choruses Em’s been trying to trot out since ‘Lose Yourself’. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is a worthy sequel to the extent that it sounds like it came from the same man, except he isn't talking to himself in a room anymore. It stabs your nerves from more angles than the sinister, snaking beats from its predecessor, but their size and cleaner, more cacophonous production – on songs like ‘Berzerk’, ‘The Monster’ and ‘Stronger Than I Was’, shrugging with damp pyrotechnics – are miles away from what Slim Shady in his prime would’ve written. These tracks lose their personality as they get bigger. Much of The Marshall Mathers LP 1 was sparse and nasty. The sequel is half as batty while begging you to take more notice.
One song, however, does the trick — opener ‘Bad Guy’, a sequel to ‘Stan’, narrated by the crazed fan’s little brother. “Feel like I’ve been waiting on this moment all my life,” Matthew/Em warns. “And now it’s arrived and my mouth is full of saliva | My knife is out, and I’m ducking on the side of your house.” Here we are again, in Friday 13th Pt. 1999. Matthew wants to slit the rapper’s throat for Stan’s breakdown. “Dragged to the back of the trunk by one of your fans / Irony’s spectacular, huh? Now who’s a f****t, you punk?” The brothers’ creator is hog-tied and chloroformed, speeding at ninety on the freeway like Stan screamed from that tape so long ago. His own art wants to reckon with him. Hysterically, Matthew demands that he atone for homophobia too. ‘Bad Guy’ stares at Eminem’s career like two guys behind prison glass, wondering where the devil went or if we could stand him again.
This track almost single handedly makes the case for a sequel record, because otherwise, you wouldn’t be a bastard for thinking the title is a cash grab. Hip hop is full of sequels. Some of them make sense, while more absolutely don’t. And we’re talking named sequels here — the numbers, the parts, the impression of an odyssey. Rock and pop have conscious follow-ups but not nearly as many, and if they do, those releases are usually decades apart. So, why do rappers love sequels? What’s special about them?
Uproxx’s Aaron P. Williams has a stab at it, pointing to nostalgia’s commercial comforts in the digital age. “Every human being on earth,” he writes, “engages in a good, old-fashioned ‘remember when’ from time to time. For most of us, things were simpler ‘back then’ because most of us were kids and our biggest worry was probably the feeling that growing up takes too long. That’s why so many of us hail the music we listened to years ago as the pinnacle of our listening experience, and will gladly support any artist who purports to bring back those feelings.”
Emotional petitions to revive a golden era today have more juice than they used to. Williams says that the internet and specifically Twitter gave artists something novel and terrifying: an ear on the conversations around their new records. Without any delay or gatekeepers, they can see what we think – and often the biggest detractors are the loudest in the room. He cites the case of Logic, whom many fans see as a major label casualty: “It’d be natural for the rapper born Bobby Hall to feel a little raw on seeing the running gags riffing on his repeated references to his biracial heritage and the ‘mixtape Logic is better’ trope. Of course he’d want to go back to the formula that endeared him to fans originally — or at least lead them to believe that he would.”
He has a point. If Reddit had been born in the bebop era — as a massive bulletin board dragged by a horse through the Midwest, say — you’d have Charlie Parker making I’m Still A Bird, Honestly or Thelonius Monk claiming that Brilliant Corners was about to get more brilliant, with more corners. Hip hop just happens to be the genre that rules the world right now. It’s held up to additional scrutiny, chiseled into trophies, weighed against everything before and surrounding it. Saying you’re getting back in touch with your old, hardcore shit implies you haven’t lost what people loved you for, even if the sneer cracks a bit.
We can see this self-aware harkening in Jay Z’s Blueprint trilogy. The initial record, 2001’s The Blueprint, suggested a return to hip hop’s foundations while laying girders for mic slaps in the new millennium. Neither of its predecessors managed to beat its craftsmanship or creative pilfering, a streak that yielded seven songs in a day (the whole record took a fortnight to cut). “The first Blueprint was of course the soul samples I heard growing up,” Jay would recollect in 2009. “The second one was pretty much the teenager with ADD, the double album, it’s all over the place [...] And the third one, for a minute, I didn’t see the need. I always wanted to do three but didn’t have the subject for it. But now, it seems like the perfect time, maturing in hip hop — we’ve never seen this level of career, someone who is consistently at the top of a genre of music. When everyone’s saying this is a young man’s game, do you still try to make a record like a 15-year old or try to tackle different subject matters?”
The Blueprint 3 gets damn close to 1’s brilliance, leaning into chillier production that tempers the album’s love letter to New York City. Second song ‘Thank You’ references 9/11, the week that The Blueprint came out; Jay compares his competition at the time to hijackers building their own walls and flying into them, running “to the crash site with no masks and inhaled | Toxins deep inside their lungs, until both of them was filled.” Jigga, meanwhile, was the icon that stood tall, the tower that grew a larger shadow. By reaching into his past, he was able to cast himself as the nu Sinatra, a tuxedoed beast too cool for genre concerns.
Nas was another giant looking for a throughline, far less successfully. Jay and Nas were beefing when Sillmatic came out — a conscious follow-up to one of rap’s most excellent debuts, front loaded with diss track ‘Ether’ that demands the crown back. However, three albums had arrived between Illmatic and its sequel: LPs that steadily diminished. Stillmatic doesn’t hold a candle to the original and gets burned for it. The samples are much sloppier, the insults sting like vinegar rather than someone pissing in your elevator (still an Illmatic highlight). The Sopranos, Limp Bizkit and other ‘000s detritus age the album without making it wiser.
Crucially, Jay Z and Nas’ series tussled before the internet was really a thing. Hip hop is obsessed with the all-powerful ‘I’ — the id, ego and super limousine of men and women who’ve often fought incredible circumstances to get where they are. Rap’s word count demands more from an individual’s life; even if someone’s playing a character, they have to puff tough, flash a chain, remind everyone else who’s paying for their meal ticket. Sequel albums allow artists to trace consistencies with their personality as much as their sound. They forge a hero’s journey in which the ‘I’ stays undefeated and self-actualized.
Sometimes, they excuse experiments. Lil Wayne’s Rebirth from 2010 was a disaster, drop-kicking him into thicc rock instrumentation that sounds like a boy spinning around his living room with an inflatable guitar, except he’s not looking where he’s going and runs into the fireplace. That same year, he began an eight-month jail term for keeping a loaded semi-automatic on his tour bus. You might say Rebirth proved he could only shoot himself in the foot. Critics savaged it with some wonderment. “An abortion of a record,” sighed Sputnik’s Rudy Klap. “It’s the purest definition of Lil Wayne, an enigma who drowns himself in cough syrup but retains his ability to memorize all of his many songs without a single notebook [...] A tragic album for a soon-to-be tragic figure.” Fans weren’t crazy about it either. Rebirth debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, yet second week sales nosedived. Behind bars, Wayne was typically intractable. His iPod was snagged as contraband but he didn’t care. “I don’t listen to no music,” he phoned in to tell Funkmaster Flex on the radio. “If I’m listening to anything, it’s sports. That’s because of the simple fact that I’ve never listened to any other music but my own.”
Tha Carter IV was reportedly in the works before he went to prison; tracks for those sessions dropped on 2010’s other contribution to Wayne’s world, I Am Not A Human Being. Slapping Carter cuts onto another project seemed less assured, the first signs of wavering from an artist who seemed to have the record industry by the short and curlies. Following up Tha Carter III — a pillar in post-Kanye hip hop — wasn’t as simple as it should’ve been. As the sequel’s release was pushed further and further back, Mack Maine, president at Wayne’s label, blamed perfectionism, while Wayne said, “these n****s beats be sucking.” Although Tha Carter IV was praised as a return to form when it finally left the oven, the charm had somewhat worn off. V would weather more drawn-out controversy until it emerged in 2018. The fact that Lil Wayne hasn’t followed up either this series or the Dedication mixtapes since then may reveal that he’s tired of mining the same sounds and, as one of rap’s elder statesmen now, can do more dodgy but commendable left turns like Rebirth, especially since that project’s rawk-lite spirit has become Wayne’s lasting influence on young rappers today. The founding ‘I’ can be laid to rest. He doesn’t have to reclaim it for respect.
Then again, sequelitis can show an artist at the peak of their powers from the start, knowing exactly how much he or she stands apart. You might point to Kanye’s College trilogy and mark it as the best body of work he ever made, in which case, you and I probably go to different parties, and you’re having more fun. But we must look to the man whom Ye has called the greatest musician of his generation (aside from him, and maybe Justin Vernon when he brings a goose over for dinner). That man is Kid Cudi.
Calling your opening salvo Man On The Moon is a statement. You’re dreaming, unknowable and far away, perhaps struggling for air. Cudi’s genius was to break open his depression and basically sing about it, even though he couldn’t. Man On The Moon sounds like nothing else from 2009. R&B and hip hop wasn’t quite ready for the dynamite it would lay around acceptable subject matter in a verse. “Listen good, I don’t have nobody | But what I might feel are the sounds of sanity.” Cudi was and remains the lynchpin of sad rap. “And we float, we kids with hope” he urges on ‘Hyyerr’, “better to cope when you smoke | Dog, please don’t miss what a n**** tryna get you thinking ‘bout.” His simple, direct bars are engineered for crowds yelling them back. Drugs, women and red-eyed partying aren’t just keys, but cages. The album is a thrilling reckoning with a dude who can feel joy and collapse despite the other or because of their proximity. Cudi realized how unique he was. MOTM’s opening song says so, straight up: “A voice who spoke of vulnerabilities and other human emotions | And issues never heard before so vividly and honestly | This is the story of a young man who not only believed in himself, but his dreams too.”
The record isn’t clever or creatively insightful, but that’s what made it special for the moment. The music sweeps you up and soothes a message — we’re all hurt and need to talk about it. Man On The Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager delved more darkly into Cudi’s quest for fame, riffing on the same psych template while tip-toeing down creepier corridors. The descending minor-key piano on ‘Mirajuana’, bass bloops from ‘Ashin’ Kusher’ and Pink Floyd sci-fi on ‘These Worries’ are production choices that throw you off balance whenever they can, like he’s fleeing further from the light and wants to see how long you'll stick with him.
Yet aside from the subjects we’ve discussed — the bravado, confusion, heroism and insecurity that may form a sequel to an album people love — I can’t help thinking that it’s often a stunt, a way to throttle an audience with the promise of that trip through time to when they were babies and babbling “bitch” on that first headphones listen. I also notice that sequels are a bloke’s game. Where are the ladies? The extra adversity in the wings? Maybe album follow-ups are another quirk of our urge to catalogue, rate and compare achievements. Unless Lil Kim or Lauryn Hill prove me wrong, I might just settle on that. After all, you never see The Minaj Story: Part VI, I’m Gonna Fuck Your Dog Up Now in the works.