Marshall Mathers has turned 35, and he finds himself at an interesting career crossroads. Out of the public eye for the better part of the last two years, he's past the point where a new album would simply be a new album. It would be a "comeback" album.
His last studio effort, 2004's "Encore," found the Detroit rapper either at his most eccentric or his most juvenile. It was the sound of a man who seemed bored of rapping and out to amuse only himself, and it sold about half as many copies as its predecessor.
In the time since, he's made more headlines in his private life than he has professionally, with his stint in rehab and his re-marriage and quickie divorce to his ex-wife Kim Mathers.
So what now? Can Eminem come back, or does he even want to?
He's been in the studio for months working on a new album, though no date for the project has been set.
Here's some unsolicited advice for the rapper to ensure a successful return to the spotlight:
Switch your style up: Beginning with "My Name Is," Eminem has always previewed his albums by releasing a goofy, pop-culture-skewering first single (see also "The Real Slim Shady," "Without Me" and "Just Lose It"). Though there is no shortage of easy targets right now -- see Paris, Lindsay, Britney, et al. -- that may not be the best direction to go. "He's getting older, and that's seen as something that's whimsical and young," says Erik Parker, director of content at hip-hop news site SOHH.com. "A more introspective route might fare better for him this time around." Besides, by the time "Encore's" anemic "Just Lose It" rolled around, the formula had pretty much dried up. Says Parker: "As far as doing the exact same thing, the music industry has proven that the same thing is not working."
Innovate, not renovate: Instead of following or kowtowing to current hip-hop trends (still smarting from Em's urging to "get it crunk" on "Encore's" closing track?), Eminem should follow his own muse. In other words, let's not release a ringtone-ready single with a hot YouTube-able dance craze, mmmkay? "I don't think he has to change according to the game, he can changethe game," says Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson. "I think that's where a lot of artists go wrong: They try to capture a certain element of the temperature of the game. But if you're not a new artist trying to break in, what excuse do you really have following trends and not setting them?"
Stretch your sound: A successful producer in his own right, Em could easily sit down and produce the majority of his album himself, dial up Dr. Dre for a few singles and call it a day. But it might be time to work with some outside producers who could help him hone a newer, fresher sound. How about Kanye West, Polow da Don (Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's") or Timbaland? Or even further outside of the box, what about rock producers such as Steve Albini or Rick Rubin? "I think he might be better off if he doesn't do too many of his own productions," Parker says. "He might want to branch out to someone else, just to check a different sound that might reflect more of where he's at now."
Call your friends: Whether it's true or not, the public perception is that Eminem has hit a Howard Hughes-like level of isolation. He's rarely seen in public, and one wonders if he's creeping around his mansion worrying about germs. "I feel he should open up his doors, reach out to his immediate circle, those people that helped him create the icon that he is," says Simpson, who says Em should call up his D12 band mates Swifty, Kon Artis, Kuniva and Bizarre. "Sometimes when I hear him, I hear a person that's bored with the rap game, and I think the best way to deal with boredom is to call your friends. I think just those guys being around" could help fuel Em's inspiration, Simpson says.
Get your grown man on: Hip-hop and pop music have always been a playground for the young. Eminem is now 35, which makes him twice as old as current Billboard chart-topper Soulja Boy. Em needs to embrace his age and elder statesman status, as Jay-Z has (Jay's last album included a song called "30 Something," and in the intro for his new single "Blue Magic," he refers to himself as "Gray Hova"). "It's important for someone who's turning 35 to be 35," Parker says. "It could have an air of desperation if he tries to appease or appeal to the next generation."
Man in the mirror: Eminem's problems would be a lot worse if he, well, wasn't Eminem. "We're talking about Eminem here," Simpson says. "This isn't a guy that's trying to break into the market. He stands on his own two legs. Even if people criticize his music, he's still amongst the elite artists in the history of the game." Parker agrees. "He's one of the best rappers ever, lyrically, and he's been consistent with that through the years," Parker says. "People will always listen and give him the benefit of the doubt. He'd have to make, like, three really bad albums before people would totally give up on him. He's earned the trust of the public."
Lose yourself: As Eminem himself once said, "You better lose yourself in the music." "All I think Em needs to do is put everything behind him and just fall back in love with the music," Simpson says. "Erase the politics of things that might sour him to the game, and go back to the element of being Marshall Mathers, that same hungry MC from back in the day. He can always do it, because it was him that did it the first time. So I never think it's too late. If he stays true to himself and stays creative, he can't lose."