Em the Gweat and Tewwible
Behind the Curtain of The Eminem Show

I am 28 today.

I have officially outlived Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

I’m taking the week off to contemplate this and basically feel like the ancient old man I am. Fortunately for those of you who can’t live without a weekly dose of my wit and wisdom (uh-huh), I had the following column all ready to go last week. I decided to let my little tribute to Dave Rankin stand alone, which left me with a column in the can. Hence, you get an all new (well, new to you) rant this week, and I get seven uninterrupted days off. Works for me. Curtain goes up, lights go on. Let the show begin…

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After September 11, many “experts” predicted that such a devastating attack at the heart of our country would signal the death of irony in our popular entertainment. Whether or not that’s true (and I highly doubt it is), it seems that America’s favorite court jester, the inimitable Eminem, was listening.

The biggest surprise of the Detroit rapper’s just-released third disc, The Eminem Show, is that he’s swapped his trademark satire for plain-spoken sincerity on virtually all of it. Em’s previous albums (1999’s The Slim Shady LP and 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, which I voted the best album of the year) traded in cartoon violence and sleight of hand, with Em’s three personalities juggling responsibility for each other’s words. Each jaw-dropping declaration came packaged with a ready-made cop-out and a deft satirical twist, with the end result being a subversion of the entire gangsta rap genre. Eminem set himself up as the ultimate unreliable narrator, hopping back and forth between the level-headed Marshall Mathers and the pathologically violent and dishonest Slim Shady, and in the end, he made you question everything that came out of every rapper’s mouth, including his own.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Eminem Show, should you get through all 80 minutes’ worth, is that Slim Shady only shows up once, in the instant classic single “Without Me.” Even that track, in context, is a portrait of an idea that’s run its course – Shady lashes out, as usual, but at the least controversial targets he could have picked. He slams ‘N Sync and Moby (Moby?!? What the hell did he ever do to anyone?), and while the barbs are clever, you get the sense that his heart’s just not in it as much as it used to be.

The rest of the album bears this out, as the remainder of the running time is given over to Marshall Mathers, the man behind the masks. It’s a daring move – Mathers has scrubbed away the greasepaint and created a first-person testimonial to his state of mind, an album as intimate and confessional as any six-string folkie’s efforts. In its best moments, The Eminem Show offers a glimpse behind the curtain at the fragile man holding the strings, and in its way, that’s even more bracing than all of Shady’s razor-sharp sobriquets.

Don’t get me wrong here – Mathers hasn’t made a record for moonlit walks in the park. The Eminem Show is just as raw, venomous and powerful as his previous efforts, only this time it’s real, which ups the stakes considerably. For example, Mathers’ legal disputes with his mother Debbie are well documented, arising as they did from backhanded jabs on both previous albums. (Shady even took an opportunity to verbally sodomize her on The Marshall Mathers LP‘s “Kill You.”) Still, you likely never took them quite seriously, which will probably leave you unprepared for “Cleaning Out My Closet,” this album’s savage evisceration of Marshall and Debbie’s relationship: “Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me? Well guess what, I am dead, as dead to you as can be…”

“Closet” is an extended poisonous assault, and its author doesn’t wink playfully once. Its exact opposite is “Hailie’s Song,” a sweet ode to Mathers’ daughter on which our faithful foul-mouthed irony machine actually sings, and it sounds for all the world like he means every word. “Hailie’s Song” is the album’s bravest moment, with Mathers standing naked on a bare stage and confessing, “My insecurities could eat me alive.” The fact that his voice is merely competent and often shaky only adds to the effect – if he could really sing, it wouldn’t be as fearless as it is.

In between those extremes, Mathers gives us further insight into his relationship with estranged wife Kim (immortalized as a murder victim in both “97 Bonnie and Clyde” and “Kim” on previous albums). Rather than the rage fantasies of albums past, though, here we get honest regret and mature understanding. Similarly, where most rappers would have turned the sex games of “Superman” into a litany of conquest, Mathers graces us with a picture of the guarded, cautious semi-swagger of a newly free man who’s been recently broken.

One of the album’s most exhilarating moments comes at the beginning, as Mathers pulls the curtain back on “White America.” The track serves as an explanation, in simple, deliriously biting terms, of the previous two albums and the cultural (and yes, racial) reasons for Mathers’ fame. The message is the same one it’s been all along – white America has never looked internally for the root causes of its downfalls. Mathers, a suburban white kid, connected with other suburban white kids by speaking their minds as Slim Shady, and his memo to the parents of his fans reads “your kids are just like me.”

Even “White America” is free of satire, however, preferring to take the straight approach. Similarly, the groovy “Square Dance” takes aim at war overseas with fastballs, not curves. Throughout the album, Mathers flirts with the responsibilities of fame, and even more poignantly, the personal responsibilities of fatherhood. Hailie Jade is at the center of this work, informing nearly every song, so it’s only fitting that she makes an appearance on the closing track, “My Dad’s Gone Crazy.” That song, one of the record’s definite highlights, contains the album’s kicker line, directed at America’s parents: “I don’t blame you, I wouldn’t let Hailie listen to me, neither.”

Beyond the surprise factor of a serious, introspective record from Eminem is the question of whether his multitude of fans will embrace such a work. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for another slice of lyrical legerdemain mixed with pop cultural bitchslaps, you’d be better off listening to The Marshall Mathers LP again. Like any restless artist, Eminem is heading off in new directions, and hoping his fan base will follow him. The central conceit of his chosen genre, however, is insincerity – MCs are known for keeping the hard-edged front up at all costs. Eminem has chosen to wear his heart on his sleeve, and only time will tell if that’s seen as weak, or recognized as remarkably courageous.

As for the album itself, well, it’s overlong, self-obsessed, immaculately crafted and unforgettable. Eminem has thrilled in the past by leaping from one voice to another, contradicting himself from song to song, but on The Eminem Show, he proves what very few rappers have learned, but most acoustic folksingers have known all along – the only voice you need is your own.

See you in line Tuesday morning.