If you’re a fan, you should know the answer is yes: yes it’s a good album, and yes you should pick it up if you see it on sale. Eminem is as incapable of making a bad album in 2004 as the Ramones were back in ‘78; his mastery of assonance, meter, tempo, breff control, and especially rhyme assure that. His best lyrics are high poetry, plain and simp, and could fit snugly in an undergrad English curriculum alongside your Whitmans and Coleridges. Em, after all, is the man who—in a throwaway track from the why-would-you-possibly-buy-that clean version of The Marshall Mathers LP—rhymed “McDonald’s arches” with “horizontal, barfing” and “you start to see things that aren’t there” with “fat women in G-strings with orange hair.” (Read that last rhyme again, out loud.) It’s true that Encore represents a drop-off in lyrical attention to detail from Mathers, and even 2002’s The Eminem Show. But Mr. Shady is still the best MC on the planet, and Encore is still a lyrical tour de force, even if there’s not as much de force as on previous records.
So he can’t make a bad album. But unless he finds some new subject matter toot sweet, Eminem will never make a great one again. Lead track “Evil Deeds” finds our man Marshall bitching and moaning about (yawn) the cost of fame, I can’t take Hailie to the mall because of y’all, you people don’t know the half of it, etc. Because audiences can never identify with it, I’m-famous-woe-is-me is almost always an uninspiring artistic topic. Dylan may have whined about crazed fans in his memoirs, but at least he had the good sense never to write a song about it.
What’s especially weird about Eminem’s contempt for his own celebrity is—well, two things. One, the man raps about other celebrities’ private lives all the fucking time. Encore features references to Paris Hilton’s sex tape, Justin and Britney’s sex life, Jessica Simpson’s sexy ass (makes his “pee pee go da doing doing doing”). He’s still fairly obsessed with Christopher Reeve. Clearly, Eminem consumes his fair share of celebrity journalism; how else could he keep up?
Meanwhile, Eminem himself knows the dark side of celebrity journalism from the other side of the looking glass—he’s actually been stalked by paparazzi, trailed by Pat O’Brien. Which brings us to the second, more crucial weird thing about Eminem’s contempt for his own celebrity. Despite the Stan-like fandom his music apparently inspires, Em continues to fill his lyrics with intensely personal details about his life—his relationship with Kim, his daughters, his mom, his crew (see what I mean about needing new subject matter?). He’s his own celebrity journalist, dishing out all the dirt on Eminem so MTV News doesn’t have to, which you gotta admit is considerate (gives the reporters more time to do their hair, or whatever it is celebrity journalists do in their leisure).
All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why Encore is good not great, which is the highest praise any post-Marshall Mathers LP Eminem record can aspire to. That album is a masterpiece because it self-consciously played around with the ideas of irony and persona and shock—did Eminem just say he raped his mom, or was it Slim Shady? or maybe it was Marshall Mathers? and do you think he meant it? Marshall Mathers mattered more as art because Eminem mattered more as a public figure; he was a brand-new, completely novel, utterly galvanizing pop star. No one knew quite what to make of him, other than he could rap like a champ.
The Eminem of Encore has a one-to-one relationship with the real life Eminem. His self-reflexivity has worn thin because he’s no longer paradigm-shiftingly novel (which is a natural consequence of the pop cycle) and because he is no longer as gleefully provocative (which is not an inevitability, and I’ll admit I didn’t see it coming). He’s gone from rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin to Hillary Duff and poo poo ka ka; in other words, his shtick is, yep, starting to wear thin. How many Kim songs do we really need, especially after “Kim”? The two new ones on Encore just seem tame.
But—he can still rap like a champ, which is why Encore still gets my qualified recommendation. It’s his least funny album ever, but it’s got some good beats (love the Heart sample on “Crazy in Love”), catchy hooks, and, of course, unparalleled assonance, meter, tempo, breff control, and especially rhyme. “Mosh” is the headline-grabber, a Dre-produced military stomp which offers the tantalizing prospect of Eminem marshalling his righteous rage and hyperarticulate torrent of spew at George Bush. But my favorite song is “Rain Man”, in which Em assumes the guise of a sexually confused southern minister, asks Dre where the goddamn beat is, and brags “I just did a whole song and I didn’t say shit.” Hmmm, a song about nothing—maybe that can be Eminem’s new subject matter.