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The Real Slim Shady Sits Down—and Grows Up

Eminem ushers in the age of the rap apology.

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Photo Credit: Rankin/Idols

In the media blitz before the release of Encore, we met yet another new Eminem: posed on Rolling Stone’s cover in a well-cut suit, sharing his views on parenting, stressing the need for “setting guidelines and rules and boundaries.” Uh-oh.

Pop music has no purer form of insufferableness than the I-love-my-child motif. “Eminem: Moral Authority” is surely what Dr. Phil would call a dog that don’t hunt. As with many recent rock records and a few rap ones, the central drama on Encore is a struggle with maturity. And few artists struggle with maturity quite like Eminem does.

The album begins in very familiar territory, with Eminem addressing his absent father on “Evil Deeds.” Like The Eminem Show’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” this one grooves along on a southern-bounce “crunk” beat—apparently Em’s preferred vehicle for inner-child work. After four albums and countless verbal matricides, one might think Eminem’s closet pretty clean. But Encore goes on to make some surprising disclosures.

The outsider-memoir track “Yellow Brick Road” charts the various ass-whupping sites that marked his coming of age as an eighties white hip-hop fiend. “Blackness is in, African symbols and medallions,” he raps, recalling his unsuccessful adoption of same at a Detroit mall. “You ain’t even half black / You ain’t s’posed to have that / Homey, let me grab that.”

After that rueful racial comedy, “Like Toy Soldiers” flashes fifteen years forward to an insider’s account of the near-deadly beef between Ja Rule and Eminem protégé 50 Cent. It’s one of the most striking moments on the album. Eminem punctuates the larger folly by sampling the heart-tugging “Toy Soldiers” refrain from the Debbie Gibson–style eighties ballad by Martika. The sample is a moving juxtaposition, made all the more so by Eminem’s evocations of real soldiers dying in the next track, the Bush-bashing antiwar hit “Mosh.”

No album ever telegraphed a change in mood more clearly than this one does after “Mosh,” with a festive little number called “Puke.” On this song—whose gross-out sound effect scarcely beguiles more in repetition—Eminem starts striving all too audibly to assure fans he has not matured. There are still pleasures to be had in this attitude, as well as the bravura wordplay and punchy beats Eminem deploys here and in kindred songs like “My 1st Single.” Still, even he seems to feel constrained by Slim Shady, unveiling a newer alter ego, “Rain Man,” a twitchy, free-associative Dadaist who sounds like Shady after an electroshock catastrophe.

It should probably go without saying that throughout this album, Eminem showcases the highest sort of hip-hop rhyme schemes and wordplay, full of free-associative fireworks, delivered in a manic, propulsive meter. But Encore’s most impressive gesture is rhetorical. Eminem, already the acknowledged master of the preemptive white-boy self-bitch-slap, drops a disarming new tactic: the apology.

In “Yellow Brick Road,” Eminem raps about a minor controversy concerning a juvenile home-recording in which a teenage Eminem disses “black girls.” Toward the end of this song, he raps, “I apologize,” and then lets the word echo faintly over the next beat. “I was wrong.” This isn’t the most rockin’ moment in musical history, nor is Encore the best Eminem album, but it’s impressive in a different way. In this, and a few other curiously self-revealing songs, Eminem tries on a new move—accountability. Which seems like a pretty good definition of adulthood.

Encore by Eminem.
Aftermath.


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