Since the release of “The Eminem Show” in May of 2002, a lot has happened to Marshall Mathers. He starred in a hit movie, gained custody of his eight-year-old niece and eighteen-year-old brother, saw his ex-wife get arrested and run from the police, and, of course, saw himself and his record label come under attack in various ways from The Source magazine and Murder, Inc. So, one might assume, Eminem would have plenty to help fuel his perpetual fire. Each of his albums to date, while different in tone, have covered topics that have stuck in his craw, and, as is the case with many artists, this annoyance and anger generates his best music, whether he’s being silly or serious. On “Encore,” Eminem still has plenty to be angry about, but this time around, his anger produces a little self-pity and a lot of insightful lyrics, while still allowing him a little time to act a fool.
Throughout his career, Eminem has essentially had two sides to his persona: the silly, offensive, Slim Shady and the thoughtful and emotional Marshall. His first two albums were overwhelmingly embodied by Shady, but, even on “The Marshall Mathers LP,” one could see that there was more to the artist than impersonations of throwaway pop stars on videos that shoot straight to the top of countdowns. By the time 2002 rolled around, Eminem, while still mad in general, had begun channeling his anger into songs that were more personal and mature, while still entertaining to average listeners. (He couldn’t have written “Lose Yourself” in 1999.) And “Encore,” as the title suggests, is a continuation and extension of “The Eminem Show,” filled with personal songs while not devoid of his occasional brash humor. He’s followed his trademark marketing formula by releasing a throwaway first single (albeit one much worse than “Without Me,” or even “My Name Is”), and following it up with a much better, much angrier song that “somehow” surfaces right a few weeks before the album is released. He knows how the system works and he’s pimping it.
The problem with this knowledge is that it creates a few too many “jaded” moments. After the intro, Em falters out of the gate with “Evil Deeds.” On his other albums, the first song has always been one to blindside the audience, but “Deeds” is whiny and less than enjoyable, as he messes with his flow to lackluster results and remarks about the fact that he’s whining (“That little rich poor white bastard needs to take some of that cash out of the bank and take a bath in it… man, if you only knew half of it.”). But, as quickly as you begin to worry about the album, it picks itself up, as “Never Enough” comes out of nowhere with a perfect Dr. Dre beat and two excellent verses by Eminem and 50 Cent that make you forget the first song and remember exactly whose CD you’re listening to.
Next is “Yellow Brick Road,” which addresses the issue of the quasi-racist tape found by the owners of The Source. Em takes a trip back to his adolescence to explain the reason why he said what he said, and while it may seem like he’s asking for cheap sympathy, he acknowledges his mistake and apologizes for it. Throw in a smooth flow and one of Eminem’s best beats, and you have an a-okay song. Em segues into the beefs with Benzino and Murder Inc. on “Like Toy Soldiers,” but instead of harping on his opponents’ shortcomings, he stresses the importance of not allowing their little squabbles to leave the studio, something rarely done in rap, and certainly not done by Ja Rule on his nearly-career-ending CD last fall (if only it had finished him off…).
From there, Eminem drops two very angry songs, the first of which, “Mosh,” has already been aptly called brilliant by this very publication. “Puke” doesn’t exactly qualify as hip-hop, and I hesitate to place it in any genre, but what is is hilarious, as he gives detailed reasons of why his ex-wife Kim really makes him want to vomit. After this toilet humor (he literally pukes and flushes it during the song), Em jumps into “My 1st Single,” which touches on the racist tape, but is, at heart, one of his “fuck off” songs, complete with a seemingly effortless flow, the first time in the CD when Slim Shady shows up, and the only time Shady truly succeeds, because, after another skippable skit, Slim Shady turns into an unfunny comedian instead of a raunchy provocateur.
“Rain Man” isn’t the first time Eminem has written about Christopher Reeve, but in 2000 the man hadn’t just died, and although what he says about the former Superman isn’t that mean, but it’s not that funny either. The second verse is a failed attempt to use to the hypocrisy of the bible to humorous good use, and, on the whole, the song has some good lines (“When am I going to come to my good senses? Probably the time Bush comes to my defenses.”), it’s ultimately just lazy, and he knows it, since the last line is “And I don’t even have to make no goddamn sense, I just wrote a whole song and I didn’t say shit.” “Big Weenie” is okay (and the second verse has a ridiculous display of his ability to flow), but, his purposefully childish lyrics grow tiresome. Both songs have similar, slow, pounding beats, and they seem like he wrote them because he needed to fill eight empty minutes on his album, but, after listening to them, he probably should have left them out.
The Shady section isn’t over yet, because, after another dumb skit where he apologizes to Michael Jackson for the gag in his video, “Just Lose It” rears its ugly head and you might have the strong urge to punch him at this point. But, “Ass Like That,” as dumb as it may be, is so ridiculously perverse and full of dirty old man remarks about celebs like JoJo and the Olsen twins that, if you don’t get disgusted, you can’t help but chuckle. It’s not a great song, but, since he does the entire song in Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s accent, you realize he at least tried this time. And then, Slim Shady disappears.
While it’s essentially a posse song, “Spend Some Time’s” ultra-rude lyrics (50 raps: “Why talk when suckin’ my dick is the real career move?”) are more clever than those in the middle of the CD, and the somber beat (once again provided by Em himself) makes the song a relaxed listen, and coupled with the obligatory but excellent ode-to-his-daughter-and-niece “Mockingbird,” “Encore” regains a wonderful balance as it starts to come to a close.
Though it borrows its name from a ubiquitous 2003 song, “Crazy In Love” is about as different from Beyonce’s trifle as can be. Like “Puke,” the other song about Kim, “Crazy In Love” is very emotional and, like “Hailie’s Song” from his last CD, he displays his high-pitched singing voice throughout the song. And while his lack of, well, talent in that area makes some parts of the song hard to listen to, he’s not trying to do anything that would put Mariah Carey to shame, and the schizophrenic lyrics (“One minute I want to slit your throat, the next I wanna sex”) fit the beat and the rock sample very well, making Eminem’s feelings for Kim seem much more real than the cartoonish descriptions he’s offered in the past.
“One Shot 2 Shot,” featuring D-12, really should have been on “D-12 World,” but, even though it’s not excellent, it gives off the vibe of friends having fun, like the best D-12 songs. Then, once you get through the final skit, you might realize that “Encore (One Last Time)” is easily one of the album’s best songs, as Eminem and Dr. Dre trade snippets (“That’s why we always keep the best cut last, to make you scratch and itch for it like fresh cut grass.”) over a banging Dre beat that would be fun to blast out of car speakers if it weren’t so cold. It’s also a great way to end the album, because even though the song may be called “One Last Time,” they confirm that this isn’t Em’s last album, and that Dr. Dre’s “Detox” album is actually going to be made. Good news for hip-hop fans. (There are three bonus songs on the album culled from mixtapes, all of which are excellent, but they’re not really part of the album proper.)
I may have spent a lot of time criticizing the lesser songs on the album, but that’s because, as a fan and one who listens to a lot of his music, it’s easy to expect more of Eminem than the middle section of “Encore” displays. But even less-than-average Eminem is better than a lot of other artists’ best. It’s certainly better than Benzino and Ja Rule. And, anyway, those three or four subpar songs are only a fourth of Eminem’s output on “Encore,” an album that, while not as good as it could be, is certainly a CD one ought to buy. Or download (Shhh). Because, essentially, while Slim Shady might be wearing thin, Marshall Mathers is still on top of his game.