Encore *** (out of four)
On the cover, a crisply tailored Marshall Mathers stands on stage before an apparently well-monied audience, one hand behind his back as he bows reverentially toward the crowd.
Flip the CD booklet over, and the view from the rear reveals that the hand behind Mathers' back holds a gun. Page through the lyrics booklet, and watch a bloodbath unfold, as Mathers shoots every member of his audience dead. Not exactly subtle, this guy.
The cover says it all. Eminem is back, and he's ready to pop a few caps in anyone who has ever wronged him, or any fool wrong-headed enough to even think about wronging him in the future.
"Encore" is Em's new platter, out Friday after being rush-released due to piracy concerns. It verily overflows with text-heavy rhymes that cast proverbial shrapnel all over everyone from George W. Bush to Michael Jackson, from Em's ex-wife to Britney and Justin, from the local police to the scores of rapper's with whom the world's biggest white rhymer is continuously feuding.
Call it revenge set to beats, with each four-plus minute track literally exploding with wordplay, all of it clever, some of it disturbing, most of completely narcissistic and self-reflective.
Welcome to Eminem's world. He's sold 50 million albums in only five years. Though so many love to hate him, and still others question the depth of just what it is that he does, what hasn't killed him has only made him stronger. "Encore" is easily his most accomplished effort. Half of the credit for the album's razor-edged brilliance goes to producer Dr. Dre, the man who fashions the beats, cuts and pastes the tracks, and generally provides the forum within which the trashy kid from Detroit can truly shine.
Most of us are already familiar with "Mosh," Eminem's anti-Bush barnstormer, which was rush-released prior to Election Day, and which the rapper performed last week on "Saturday Night Live." The tune hits hard, as Dre's crunky, sonorous mix lays the foundation for an Eminem call-to-arms.
"And as we proceed to mosh through this Desert Storm, in these closing statements, if they should argue, let us beg to differ/As we set aside our differences and assemble our own army to disarm this weapon of mass destruction that we call our President for the present/And mosh for the future of our next generation to speak and be heard... Mr. President, Mr. Senator... Can you guys hear us?"
Like Howard Stern - whose politics were radically affected by FCC problems, and who became Bush's worst nightmare, along the way politicizing parts of his audience, many of whom were initially Bush supporters - Eminem has great power over his listeners. Sadly, "Mosh" is the exception here, not the rule. Eminem - to his weakness - has always been much more concerned with his own Kevlar-coated world than with the broader, bigger picture. Still, moments like "Mosh" suggest - gasp! - a maturity on the rapper's part, and the song goes a long way toward elevating "Encore," rescuing it from the toilet where it spends most of the rest of its time.
Potty humor has its place, of course, and with Eminem, that place seems to be a rather prominent one. Belches, flatulence and wrenching gags abound throughout "Encore." One track - a scathing, visceral, misogynist attack on Em's ex, Kim - begins with the sound of the singer forcefully vomiting into a toilet. It's button-pushing, specifically designed to shock and offend. And it does. As wrong as this tune is, and it's wrong on many levels, it's tough not to laugh when listening to it; Eminem is deviously clever, and imaginatively hilarious.
That only goes so far, of course, and at times, "Encore" gets the gong because its own viciousness derails it. "Puke" is a suitable case in point; it's so hate-filled that one wonders just what the target audience - 14- to 25-year-old white males - will take from it. It pushes First Amendment issues to the limit, which is part of Eminem's charm, and a huge part of his significance as a pop artist. But it's nearly impossible to get your head around some of the offensive lyrics.
Gay bashing is another favorite Eminem pastime, and he does so with spite-filled rage on "My 1st Single" and the otherwise side-splitting "Rain Man." It's difficult to understand what purpose this serves. Essentially, such bigotry hurts the songs, which are rhythmically, and in spots even melodically, well-developed and eminently creative.
"Encore" is violent, misogynistic and sexist. It's also fun, and quite funny. There, in a nutshell, is the dichotomy that makes Eminem an interesting pop phenomenon. Much of the time, he sounds like an egomaniacal jerk. But there's no denying the strength of his rhymes, nor the intuitive genius of the Em-Dre production team. And both are in full evidence here.