Thoughts on the career of Eminem, fueled by a mid-career hits bonanza that arrives just in time for the holidays:
One: I can’t tell which ages worse, teen-pop or shock-rap, but I do know that the irony contained therein pleases me greatly. Two: wielding faux-dangerous pop-culture references doesn’t make you the world’s most button-pushing MC, it sort of makes you “Weird Al” Yankovic. And three: that a rapper of this much verbal gymnastic ability is spending his mid-30s making gerbil-in-the-cornhole jokes is awkward and sad; he’s like the guy who graduated three years ago but still tries to hang out with the high schoolers. Dude, seriously, shouldn’t you, like, get a job or something?
Eminem’s hits set Curtain Call may or may not address rumors of his retirement from his Slim Shady persona—he tries to shut them down on MTV, but ladles on the show’s-over imagery so awkwardly thick that you suspect the whole clunky setup came from Bush’s press people. But whether it’s the close of a chapter or just a stocking stuffer, Curtain Call has this bizarre morning-after effect, like the drugged pre-teen in Guilty Conscience—oh my God, I totally can’t believe we all fell for this guy. It proves, in its overstuffed, same-y glory, that the history’s biggest-selling rapper is also easily its most garish waste of skills.
Prior to Curtain Call—well, really prior to last year’s clunktastic Encore—you could have argued that Eminem was driving the speed limit on purpose. Are you gonna mess around with the template that moved 65 million CDs worldwide? Each album out, the man (and his Dr.) had a sales plan, Stan: Drop a blippy club single, include obvious shots at bald techno producers or boy-bands, follow with something darker, spend subsequent weeks bathing in washtubs full of cash.
But stripped of their context, the hits of Curtain Call present another Marshall Mathers entirely—one who knows he’s plumb out of juice. “I have some songs that a lot of people like,” Eminem writes in the accompanying press release. “I have some songs that only I like. This album is obviously for the ‘lot’ of people.” Tricky grammar notwithstanding, that’s snoozy boredom at best, fan-directed contempt at worst. I bet he’s totally stopped returning his fan mail.
Want proof he’s asleep? Curtain Call puts it front and center with “Fack”, a close cousin of Encore‘s “Just Lose It”—not because it’s a limp dance number, but because everyone involved apparently abandoned its assembly midway through production. Rhymes are half-finished, lines are repeated into numbness. If you’re wondering about the title, it’s a riff on how the sorority demographic pronounces fuck differently, complete with those gerbil jokes. Yep. Gerbils. The album’s next single: “What is the deal with airline food?”
There are two other new tracks here: “Shake That”, which is about 75% Nate Dogg and will bore the holy living bejesus out of his longtime fans, and “When I’m Gone”, a stunningly dull “Mockingbird” reheat told after he’s offed himself on record, again. It’s another bleeding-heart epic to his daughter addressing—say it with me—the drugs and fame and guns and that business about wanting to drowning her fucking bitch mother. If there are any pathos left to be sponged out of this cornball soap opera, with its beginning in gruesomely orchestrated wannabe murder plots and end in tearful bedside pleas, you know how many shits I give? I wish I did.
Which is all profoundly frustrating. Eminem’s influence is hard to overstate. He doesn’t ride the beat so much as box with it; he hits ups and downs like a skateboarder glancing off concrete—with brutality, sure, but also no small degree of grace. And he’s proven to be equally skilled as a producer and an MC, crafting beats of a sinister but melodic sort that augment his dark-carnival vibe more damningly than his lyrics do. (That said, Curtain Call makes clear that he may also be the laziest sampler in the game—he cribs not bits but whole choruses out of “Dream On, Toy Soldiers” and “Thank You”.)
And for all the dated-sounding obviousness in tracks like “My Name Is” and “The Way I Am”, Eminem was, and is, a rapper with the potential of a hundred weaker MCs. A guy whose gymnastic verbal jukes can still make jaws drop. A guy who, when he applies himself, can make the occasional point about the jagged intersection of entertainment, commerce and image (“Sing for the Moment”) or pen a brilliant, martial smackdown of the Bush administration (“Mosh”, which does not appear here, left off to make room for “Just Lose It” and its fantastic fart jokes).
Curtain Call, in fact, corrals two of music’s most powerful tracks in recent memory. “Stan” (which appears in both album form and the punk-out Grammy duet with Elton John) is cruel perfection, and “Lose Yourself” is ageless power, and the album’s most frustrating tease—all he can do on record is yell at Kim, but he can sure dial up an inspirational banger if the Oscar people are looking.
But this many years in, all his craziness, nuttiness, all that about how he’s masking a mind of intelligence under these distracting horror rhymes? Nah. His vaunted “contradictions”—“I say that shit just clownin’ dog,” he tells Stan—about race, image, the unreal Slim Shady vs. the real Marshall Mathers, aren’t conscious; they’re residual noise. That he’s ended up making a career’s worth of salient points about race appears to be a really lucky accident.
Still, he’s hardly a dumb guy, which must account for the near-palpable but unobtainable dream of breaking free from the puke-joke shackles he’s chained himself with. Nothing ages more pungently than shock—ask Alice Cooper and his caddy, or Marilyn Manson if you can find him. Eminem knows that. But it sells, and he knows that too. Maybe that’s why he gets himself in these meaningless feuds with schmoes like the Insane Clown Posse, or calls off tours because of the brand of “exhaustion” that never seems to befall non-famous people. Or maybe he never had any idea what he was doing, there was never any plan, Slim Shady got too big and ran away from him, and in five years we’ll all be talking about him in the sighing, resigned terms in which Obi-Wan talks about Anakin: “I thought I could teach him. I was wrong.”
Whatever. This is all a lot of talk about a guy who’s greatest-hits comp includes the line: “I wanna facking fack/no, not fuck/I said fack/F A C K F A C K/fack fack facking freak me.” Whether there’s still untapped potential in there or not, right now he’s just a 34-year-old guy who’s pigeonholed himself as a poppy sensation, and now gets to spent his time sucking up to a fan base he evidently can’t stand. And meanwhile, the Eminem show keeps airing repeats, and it’s hard to care if its renewed.