Eminem is all grown up. Gone are the suicidal urges, matricidal rants and homicidal exhortations. Surprisingly often, the rapper closes his unapologetic potty mouth, putting deliberate silence, simulated CD skip, and even unintelligible gibberish (“yada yada yada”) in the place of predictable explicitness. But Mr. Mathers has not lost his edge: He’s only sharpened it.
“Encore,” his first album in four years, achieves a balance between the rapper’s energetic anger, self-referential playfulness and musical experimentation. The album is a logical step forward for an artist whose career has been a lyrical journey of development for both artist and his fans (many of whom were first introduced to hip-hop by his first, MTV-friendly singles.)
Instead of rapping about killing his pill-popping mom, Eminem croons assurance to his daughter Hallie and laments the fallen state of superstardom. To be sure, his Oedipal anger towards Momma does indeed surface in the song “Evil Deeds” — just as “Mockingbird,” a sublime lullaby, is a reminder that Hallie’s mom Kim is still a two-timer with bad habits. But these monsters from the past take a backseat to a more urgent, pressing pathos that lyrically invades nearly every song on this album: the priceless pain of fortune, fame and how much it hurts to be Eminem.
In more than one interview, the rapper has voiced a strong desire to quit the rap game to concentrate more on producing. The album’s lyrics imply the same notion, albeit in roundabout ways. On “Evil Deeds” the Eminem complains, “And all I wanna do is go to the mall and take Hallie on the carousel / Without this crowd everywhere.” The sad, escapist mood permeates “Encore,” affecting even the songs that seem destined to become hits.
The album’s first single, “Just Lose It,” is a perfect example. The song is far from the most brilliant on the “Encore” (its mindless “hahaha” chorus seems custom-made for tequila drinking), though it’s not bad for a little bone thrown to big record execs. The lyrics are so ridiculous, and the vocal delivery is so over-the-top that the hit seems laden with irony. If his fans wanted another stupid little ditty along the lines of “My Name Is” or “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem has intentionally given them one (this is the only way to explain the lyric “pajama time”).
The track “My 1st Single” is a similar take on pop hits and the inane thought process behind them. The cliched self-referencing of the song is almost nonsensical, especially when interspersed with sounds of flatulence. A careful listen to the beat-heavy song’s lyrical gibberish makes dancing impossible, and that’s exactly what the rapper seems to want (he’s “just pulling your chain,” he says). Eminem voices the same message on “Rain Man:” “I just did a whole song and didn’t say s**t,” he mocks. “I don’t have to say anything.” Is it annoying self-mockery that’s been done before or ingenious post-post-modernism?
Alongside these angry, self-conscious diatribes disguised as ready-made rap hits are a few beautiful interludes, produced by Eminem himself. “Like Toy Soldiers” has a wonderfully sweeping melody that contrasts nicely with the militaristic overtones of its lyrics. “Mosh,” the album’s second single, translates the same warlike beat into an overtly political message (the video caused a stir on MTV). The very different “Crazy in Love” samples Pat Benetar, and Eminem even sings along with the sexy rocker in the chorus (and it’s not half-bad).
Thankfully, Eminem will never forget about Dr. Dre, his mentor and the founding father of West Coast rap. He produces many of the album’s tracks, infusing it with the thumping California sound that put him on the map so long ago. Dre brings along old friends like the honey-voiced Nate Dogg and 50 Cent, who is in remarkably top form. But not all guest spots were created equal: Eminem’s old crew D-12 appears on “One Shot 2 Shot,” which is (like most D-12 songs) easily forgettable.
Unlike that group, which has stuck with a tired drug shtick, Eminem has been making more and more mature music, infusing his albums with the pathos of the world’s biggest rap superstar. He’s still an angry white boy, but here he seems to be angry at the rap world he’s conquered.
Maybe at the top of his art he’s ready to bow out of rapping and retire happily into the lucrative world of production. After all, what else comes after an encore but a departure? But should Eminem go the way of the recently retired rapper Jay-Z — or, to be more fatalistic, the recently deceased O.D.B. — the self-reflective and mature album may very well render his oeuvre complete. As he says on “Never Enough,” “As long as you place me amongst one of them greats / when I hit the heavenly gates / I’ll be cool beside Jay-Z.”