If you're an MTV-watching, Internet-surfing, beef-consuming fan of Eminem, you won't learn nothing new by listening to his fifth album, Encore. Many of its revelations have already passed through the echo chamber of media-fueled public discourse. Like his last album, the horrendously overwrought The Eminem Show, Encore purveys a surreal intimacy that feels uncomfortable to some (like this listener) and inviting to others (like his millions of fans and supporters), the inevitable result of having already heard, read, or seen news of his many adventures. (On Encore he addresses his latest "controversy," a "beef" with Michael Jackson over the video to "Just Lose It," with a pair of witty skits.)
Eminem's rhymes have the rambling hypersensitivity of diary entries, schizophrenically bouncing between nervous moments of clarity and narcissistic attempts at self-aggrandizement. On "Yellow Brick Road" he revisits his 8 Mile origins, using the occasion to apologize for a precocious rap tape that found him lashing out at a black girlfriend and "singling out a whole race," which his archrivals at The Source magazine uncovered and released as a snippet CD earlier this year. Some of his reminiscences are compelling, especially when he remembers how X-Clan's To The East, Blackward led him to be ostracized by the black youths in his neighborhood. But those insights are followed by the less modest "Like Toy Soldiers," where Eminem lashes out at The Source co-owners Benzino and Dave Mays. "The owner of it has got a grudge against me for nothing?/Well, fuck it, that motherfucker can get it, too/Fuck him, then," he mutters.
Other times, Eminem just spits garbage with wiry confidence, exhibiting a glee not heard since The Marshall Mathers LP. On "Ass Like That," he manages to record a "we hate these hoes" song without resorting to the date-rape leer he used to such disturbing effect on his "Superman" single. There's even a song ridiculously titled "Big Weenie," where he calls his haters and detractors "meanies."
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Such relatively unforced attempts at mirth make Encore a far more varied experience than The Eminem Show. That 2002 album was a raw and gangrenous earsore of Oedipal nightmares and paranoid ravings, a symphony of self-indulgence which fell far short of the Makaveli watermark set by the ultimate mad rapper, Tupac Shakur.
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Fans who have been reserving a place on their top ten list all year for Eminem's latest opus, no matter what slop he eventually put out, probably won't be disappointed. (Though, if early reviews of the album are any indication, they may be growing bored with him). On "Never Enough," a chest-thumping track with 50 Cent and Nate Dogg, Eminem brags in a quick tempo, "I could give a fuck what category you place me/Long as when I'm pushing up daisies and gone/As long as you place me amongst one of them greats/When I hit the heavenly gates, I'll be cool beside Jay-Z."
In contrast, Encore's beats plod along like mammoths stuck on the tundra. On "Like Toy Soldiers" Eminem samples Martika's 1989 power ballad "Toy Soldiers," before mercifully segueing to a skittering military drum pattern. He exhibits better taste by culling the chorus from Heart's "Crazy on You" to kick off "Crazy In Love," but the results are worse: He slaps the sample on at the beginning of the track, creating a dissociative effect similar to turning on a mono radio transmitter in the middle of an opera.
Clearly, Eminem is no polymath. The brutishly simple backing tracks he makes for his verbal displays, however, help him create an aural universe unmistakably his own. On the surface, for example, "Mosh" is hip-hop Gothicism that positions Eminem as soothsayer, spitting "truths" about President George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden amidst thunderstorms. As exhilarating as it sounds to hear Eminem shout "Fuck Bush!/Until they bring our troops home," the song sounds heavy and miserable, channeling the impending doom many felt before the 2004 presidential election (and especially after it).
If Eminem has created an underdog's paradise of purpose, self-righteousness, and achievement by reducing hip-hop to its bare, raw essentials while maintaining a superior standard, then his fans have every right to anoint him king of the rap world. But if that world is so cloistered that little filters into it beyond his own obsessions, then one hopes that Encore is a final exorcism of demons rather than the latest chapter in a cycle of pain and glory as redundant as Shakur's postmortem catalog. As ugly, jagged, and uneven as Encore sounds at times, it offers evidence that Eminem is working towards the former goal.