November 16, 2004

Coming off of recent triumphs, Mathers slinks back to Slim Shady... singing

Guess who's back? He's the most successful white artist in hip-hop, he's the only rapper to win an Oscar, and he has a recurring fetish for cross-dressing in his videos. Fresh off of a successful acting debut and a D12 album that works as an excellent coaster, Eminem returns with his fourth album, Encore. Since the record will sell millions no matter what's on it, he has the unique opportunity to take his music in any direction he wants.

Eminem's first three albums were very different. The Slim Shady LP had self-deprecating humor and clever storytelling. The Marshall Mathers LP had vicious attacks against critics, hypocrites, obsessive fans, homosexuals, women and, well, basically everybody. The Eminem Show mostly abandoned humor and included more serious songs about family, politics, and a sobering run-in with the law. Now, with Encore, Eminem attempts to resurrect his goofy Slim Shady persona and experiment with his voice, singing on almost every song. The result is the biggest misfire of the year. While listening to it, I had to turn it down at several points because I was embarrassed—and I'm white.

As you could probably tell from "Just Lose It," Eminem's sense of humor has regressed to the point where his little daughter Hailie has to be the only one laughing. His humor used to be edgy and toed the thin line between the offensive and the ridiculous. Now his idea of a funny line is, "Oops, my CD just skipped/And everybody heard you let one rip." Worse yet, "Just Lose It" is not the usual corny lead single that's atypical of the whole album. There are five songs just like it on Encore, full of burps, farts, and puking. There are even chants of "Poo-poo, ca-ca!" ("My 1st Single") and "You make my pee-pee go doing, da doing, doing doing!" ("Ass Like That"). The Slim Shady LP might have been corny at times, but at the very least Eminem was funny and showed actual lyrical skill. Imagine watching an episode of Terrance and Philip instead of an episode of South Park, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Encore.

Even the angry songs feel forced. The best example is "Mosh," which was supposed to inspire people to vote against Bush, but is incredibly low on energy and information. Dr. Dre's plodding, soporific beat is more suitable for an intro than for a full song, and Eminem's rapping is lethargic and full of clichés like,"I rhyme to give sight to the blind." Also, his attack on Bush is extremely overrated. Only the third verse is actually about the president, and the criticism that's there is very dated and hackneyed. Much better political points were made on Immortal Technique's "Bin Laden" and on "Why Remix," the collaborative effort of Jadakiss, Common, Styles P, and Nas. Compared to them, Eminem just sounds hellbent on screaming, "Fuck Bush! Yeah…yeah, fuck Bush!" With Election Day a full two weeks behind us, "Mosh" is an embarrassing case of too little, too late.

However, the biggest problem with Encore is that Eminem has been bitten by the same singing bug as Mos Def and Andre 3000. His first foray into singing—"Hailie's Song" on The Eminem Show—worked because it was tongue-in-cheek, sentimental, and, most of all, one time only. Apparently, Eminem has interpreted his success with "Hailie's Song" as a pass to sing the chorus on every song, and often for full verses. The nadir of this occurs on "Puke," yet another serenade to his on-again, off-again lover Kim. As he croons "no-woh-woh" and "ooh-woo-woo" in a whiny falsetto, you start to realize how eerily appropriate the title is. His singing is a little more tolerable on "Crazy in Love," which is thematically the same song—but who exactly wants to hear Eminem sing? Experimentation can be a great thing, but just like when Michael Jordan went back to basketball, Eminem needs to go back to rap.

The Achilles' heel of every Eminem album has always been the production, and Encore is no different. Surprisingly, Dr. Dre gives Eminem a whopping seven beats instead of his usual three, which is a great first step. Unfortunately, Eminem handles the rest of the production, and he is considerably less talented. With so much money and clout in the rap industry, why doesn't Eminem look to outside producers to liven things up? He could make something truly special if he worked with DJ Premier, Kanye West, RZA, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek, Alchemist, Rick Rubin—hell, at this point I'd even settle for the Neptunes.

All these low points wouldn't hurt so much, though, if Encore didn't have some true moments of greatness. In the nostalgic "Yellow Brick Road," Eminem offers an explanation for the infamous "racist tape" leaked by last year by The Source. He apologizes for a third time and gets strikingly personal about his past, from his young fascination with hip-hop to his relationship with the girl who inspired the tape.

Another stand-out is "Like Toy Soldiers," in which Eminem uses a brilliant Martika sample as a metaphor for beef in hip-hop. He gets introspective about his feuds with Ja Rule and The Source, using a tone that slips between angry and remorseful.

The most heartfelt song on the album is "Mockingbird," in which Eminem reveals all of his shortcomings as a father to Hailie. Over a somber piano loop, he raps, "Daddy's always on the move, Momma's always on the news/I tried to keep you sheltered from it but somehow it seems/The harder that I try to do that the more it backfires on me."

All three of these songs show Eminem at the top of his game, rapping from the heart and putting detailed aspects of his personal life on public display. These moments of greatness, however, are too few and far between, and not even fun collaborations with Dr. Dre on the title track and 50 Cent on "Never Enough" can save the album. It's as if Eminem has gotten to the point where he doesn't know what to rap about anymore, but released a new CD anyway, just because he could. For the first time, his comedy falls flat and his terse, rapid-fire flow has been replaced by a bunch of slurred rambling and free-verse singing. Encore doesn't hold a candle to any of Eminem's previous albums, and if this is any indication of what's to come, he should just stay offstage.