It had to happen sooner or later, I guess. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be surprised: Eminem has turned out a lazy, half-assed album, and I don’t want to listen to it. Marshall Mathers and his enormous marketing machine have, since 1998, consistently been one step ahead of the public. Every new album wasn’t just ‘new shit’, but part of a continuous story, using Eminem’s media persona and his lyrics to portray a bizarre narrative of hard-luck redemption. I still pop The Marshall Mathers LP into my tapedeck frequently and become hypnotised by the dark, cartoon-funk beats and the incredibly condensed, rhythmically complex and clever lyrics. I still admire the way it is insanely catchy but carries a central thesis; every song evoking an oblique space between terror and truth, personal ethics and free expression and cloaks it with the obfuscation of an authoritative author, making the album virtually critic-proof.
The boldness of this album is evident in its album cover, in which Eminem cowers in the foetal position next to a sewer, staring back at the record buyer, horrified. How many albums have gone 8 times platinum with a picture of the musician cowering in fear on its cover? The Marshall Mathers LP was in every way the first ‘post-Columbine’ record, its content a deliberate attempt not to reason with but to indict middle America’s censorship stance and its negligence of children. Through reductio ad absurdum, Em addresses literal interpretations of his music in his final track, Criminal saying ‘shit, if you believe that, then I’ll kill you too.’ It was at once the most horrifying album of the past ten years (certainly more dark, convincing, and disorienting than any Black Sabbath record) and the one most defensive of free speech, as well as more complex readings of pop music.
The Marshall Mathers LP was almost like a palate-cleansing exercise, and by record’s end, it didn’t seem like there could possibly be anything left to say. Coupled with the release of 8 Mile and the accompanying soundtrack, The Eminem Show presented an honest, earnest and redeeming image for the musician. While Without Me and Cleaning out my Closet were the popular singles from The Eminem Show, most agree that it was Lose Yourself, from the 8 Mile soundtrack, which best depicts this era in his career. The self help/inspirational vibe of the song, the Michael Jackson-style guitar chord sample and the third person account of a nervous, defeated and pathetic rapper that evolves into a first person account, with a very definitive author (and this is my life/it’s no Mekhi Phifer/and these times are so hard) suggested that the levels of irony had been peeled back, that the distance of satire had been crossed like the Rubicon, leaving an unassailable, honest, hard-working man underneath.
8 Mile did for Eminem what Private Parts did for Howard Stern: it explained away personal, mean-spirited behaviour and juvenility as honest, clever and ‘real’ responses to a harsh, mean-spirited world. In both films, irony and satire become the only way into authenticity and realness, and their vicious, playful personas become embedded within a larger hard luck meta-narrative. The viewer/listener is satisfied because this ‘honest’ and authentic self was hiding, and the viewer has earned his/her right to witness it by enduring the irony and the insults. By the time Em says ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’ in a completely un-ironic voice on Lose Yourself, it’s far more reassuring and stomach-clenching than it would had he not been a drug-addled serial killer only a few LPs prior.
Which brings us to Encore. The first LP since the independently released Infinite to not be self-titled, Encore keeps in Em’s tradition of referencing the titles of his previous LPs. Whereas the title The Eminem Show finished off a trilogy between The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, Encore sets out to be a second act, or rather a tacked on supplementary performance.
To be upfront, there is only one song here I would qualify as very good, the autobiographical, hip hop coming up story Yellow Brick Road. Rating a close second is Like Toy Soldiers, a sombre and apologetic, if not overly referential and possibly over-dramatic ballad. Both of these songs appear early on the album, tracks 3 and 4 respectively. They both have an important common denominator: they are responses to ugly feuds that Eminem became wrapped up in since his last album. They put Eminem on the defensive, where he fares best. After the nursery rhyme/cult mantra that opens the album, Evil Deeds, (In which Eminem uses an almost identical flow to that used in Biggie’s Notorious Thug from Life After Death) and a fairly solid, if less than phenomenal cock-waving track with new playpal 50-Cent, Never Enough, it seems like this album is off to a great start.
Yellow Brick Road starts off with a well-placed vocal sample of a stuffy pundit played against what sounds like a radio signal fading in and out, a contemplative prologue that one might expect on a Roots album. There is an urgency to the beat, a feeling that this song is taking us somewhere, grabbing our hands and jogging fast like addled parents, and Em kicks in with rhymes complementary to this style, urgently rushing us through his adolescence. The entire song is meant to address Source owner Michael Benzino, a fact that is addressed on the first line (The music we all love and enjoy/the music you accused me of trying to destroy) and specifically a tape that Benzino circulated in which Em gives a racially charged diss on a black ex-girlfriend. As Em said about the encounter in the latest XXL, ‘what else could be Eminem’s kryptonite?’ referring to his status as a melatonin-challenged rapper who has had to establish himself in a genre where his skintone is less than the norm.
It’s obvious that Eminem feels that his career hinges on how he responds to the tape, which is why his method of response is so clever and commendable: rather than rag on Benzino and deny wrongdoing, he gives a detailed account of his induction into hip hop, focusing particularly on clumsy fashion decisions he made while trying to assimilate into a culture that was sceptical of his skin-tone. After going through various sneaker choices, detailing his wide-eyed love of childhood rap icons, he lapses into a monotone sing-song detailing his first encounters with D12 member Proof, their immediate connections and similar styles and their unspoken bond. The entire song is meant to be a prologue to give context to the final verse, in which Eminem explains the tape he made with the racially-charged comments. What’s clever and remarkable about the structure of this song and its spiralling beat is that by the time we reach the goal, it’s irrelevant. ‘The story of the tape’ doesn’t contain anything remarkable, if anything its remarkably mundane, even the straightforward apology: ‘I singled out a whole race, and for that I apologise’. The aptly titled song takes us on a journey that’s far more rewarding than the destination, making Benzino’s accusations as hollow as the man behind the curtain.
The song you’ve probably heard the most about is the politically-charged ‘Mosh.’ Yes, hearing culture-positive lyrics from mister ‘Just don’t give a fuck’ is hopeful and reassuring. But other than the grim Green Lantern beat, the song isn’t that great. It’s obvious Em didn’t read up on any politics when he wrote the song; he sounds like he’s reading from Moveon.org bumper stickers: ‘No more blood for oil! We got our own battles to fight on our own soil!’ Every once in a while the song is darkly poignant: look at his eyes it’s all lies/the stars and stripes washed out and wiped/replaced with his own face, mosh now or die/if I die tonight you’ll know why, cause I told you to fight, but mostly it’s clumsy, plodding and uninformed. The song is a sequel to his previous political track on The Eminem Show, Square Dance, (in which he also cries out ‘It feels so good to be back!’) Get it? The hicks square dance, the cool kids mosh… whatever.
The remaining songs focus on belching, farting and Christopher Reeves. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Eminem had to try really hard to make songs this bad. Anyone who’s heard mixtapes or bootleg freestyles from the man knows that he can spin shit into gold with a broken gramophone backing him and it would still be record-worthy. These songs aren’t just bad: they’re baffling.
On Rain Man, for instance, the second half of the song sees Em transform into a southern preacher and ask Dr Dre if its considered homosexual for a football player to accidentally anally penetrate another football player mid-game, while picturing a naked woman. It takes him a full minute to to ask this, and it doesn’t get any funnier as the joke progresses. On Ass Like That, a seductive Middle-Eastern beat and a clever, catchy chorus make it impossible for this song not to be a club banger. Except, Em spends the song singing in character as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Why? ‘I can say anything and you’ll laugh, cause there’s a puppet on my hand!’. Yes. Well argued. The album ends with the eponymous track, in which Em shares time with 50 Cent and Dre, but like the second track Never Enough, it’s just good enough without saying anything especially clever.
If this were any other artist, I’d hang my head and proclaim that he’s lost it. Encore just seems to lack inspiration. The only reason this album was released was to keep Eminem in the public eye two years after The Eminem Show. He’s succeeded at that with the controversy surrounding Mosh and his Michael Jackson jokes, but this mess may remain a huge smudge on his musical legacy for some time. As he seems to do his best when he’s been issued a serious threat, as evidenced from his beef with Benzino or Murder Inc, we can only hope that lots and lots of people sue, insult, or cheat on Eminem before he releases his next LP. There are hints at retirement on several of the tracks, so we can only hope that his next album isn’t titled The White Album.
Genre: Hip Hop
Record Label: Interscope