There’s something poetic about seeing musical legend come to fruition, like the moment we actually finally heard Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, or perhaps when The Band That Used To Be Guns N’ Roses dropped Chinese Democracy… okay, perhaps seeing musical legend come to fruition is occasionally underwhelming. After all, a wait that long serves no other purpose than to whet the appetite. Fortunately, while estranged ex-BFFs Eminem and Royce Da 5’9″ were famously rhyme partners before infighting necessitated their breakup, the duo, billed as Bad Meets Evil, has dropped their debut EP with little-to-no fanfare. That’s right – no fancy reunion announcement, no year spent hunkered down in the studio, just 40-odd minutes of rhyming dropped unassumingly into a slow release week.
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Which is great, because Hell: The Sequel may have been underwhelming if we’d gotten the chance to work up some lofty expectations. Eminem is in the middle of a serious career resurgence, and Royce, sailing blissfully under the radar and emceeing on his own terms, has been enjoying a hot streak of being well-received by hip-hop heads. Together, they find a midpoint that acknowledges Shady’s commercial potential without kowtowing to it – Marshall seems largely back to his old tricks again, shrugging off the responsibility of following up his largely introspective, reasonably mature Recovery and peppering his rhymes with pop-culture references, vicious celebrity slander (including an astonishingly-performed extended joke at the expense of poor dead David Carradine, seemingly pieced together so he could smack us with the money-shot punchline “I’M SAYIN’ I DIE HARD!”), and, of course, rhymes immaculately laced with torrents of bracing profanity. Royce, meanwhile, manages to match an on-his-game Em verse-for-verse – no small feat when the Shady One is bringing his A game – sounding like a pleasing midpoint of LL Cool J and E-40. He’s crucial to the success of Hell, because Eminem is so deep into Shady mode that his off-the-rails flow and wild-eyed streams of consciousness threaten to get overbearing. When this happens, Royce is always there to ground – he’s simply good at what he does, and his verses are dexterous, witty, and colorful.
Despite having calibrated the perfect balance, Hell: The Sequel does leave a bit to be desired. First of all, these two need the perfect musical platform to trade off these smart, rambling tirades, and on the production tip, Hell is simply nothing special. The beats are almost indistinguishable from one another; in a certain sense, this serves only to amplify the power of the duo rhyming over them, since the listener is forced to pay attention to the rhymes instead of being distracted by intricate production, but Hell lacks the immediacy for anything other than intense, focused listening. As background music, this could be anybody’s record: only attentive absorption allows for the realization that these are two emcees at the top of their game. “Fastlane” is the first true head-nodder, replete with a terrific throwback chorus that sounds particularly Nate-Doggy (R.I.P.), and “I’m On Everything” flips a Mike Epps standup bit into an insidiously catchy hook, but without listening to “A Kiss” and “Take From Me” back to back, the odds of the listener being able to discern the two is unlikely. Neither is as jarring as “Lighters”, a slice of routine introspection dressed up with a soaring Bruno Mars chorus – it’s a perfectly serviceable track, mind you, but it seems too overtly pop-baiting for an album predominantly concerned with rhymes for the sake of rhymes, laced with all the insults and gallows humor that its title implies.
Still, Hell: The Sequel deserves its propers for spotlighting two emcees at the top of their game; a record that allows two guys room to enrich and one-up each other without any gimmicks or window-dressing is a rare beast indeed. If the slapdash nature of this EP prevents it from being an instant classic, the rhymes contained herein hint that Bad Meets Evil certainly have the goods to make one. For the low price tag, anybody that digs pure rhyming for the fun of it could do a lot worse than this.
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