The Marshall Plan
Eminem Falters With Encore

So I’m flipping back through my archive, and I’m re-listening to some old records, because I can’t quite put myself into a 2000 frame of mind. I need to ask you all this, though, because I don’t think I imagined it.

Eminem used to have something to say, right?

Back when The Marshall Mathers LP came out, it seemed like we were welcoming a new master of the form. I even named Eminem’s second album as the best record of 2000, feeling pretty confident in my assertion that Em was, in fact, underrated as an artist because of his subject matter and frequent profanity. Marshall Mathers was a grand-scale satire perpetrated on the music business and on its lambs-to-the-slaughter fans, willing to emulate whatever the stars told them to do. It was an exaggerated pile of lies from the mouth of a multiple-personality maniac with a cop-out for every occasion.

And it was thrilling.

Even musically, The Marshall Mathers LP was a good pop album. It’s no secret that Em’s flow is best when it’s fast and sarcastic. He’s got lyrical tricks most MCs never learn, and his internal rhyme structure is second to none. You never know which direction his rhymes will go, largely because you never know which of his personalities will come in to lead the lyrical train of thought next. Some gave me grief about my praise of this record, but I stand by it. As a rapper, a writer, and a cultural theorist, Eminem is almost absurdly talented.

So what happened?

In 2002, he released The Eminem Show, the final act of his opening trilogy, and it broke the mold of his first two by drawing back the curtain. Instead of pathological liar and certified nutjob Slim Shady at the wheel, this one featured just plain ol’ Marshall Mathers, regular guy. He laid bare the joke behind The Marshall Mathers LP in his opening shot, “White America,” and went on to discuss fatherhood, family and emotions. It was the rap equivalent of an Ani Difranco album – here’s what’s going on in my life right now, as plainly as I can state it.

He even started to show signs of social responsibility on tracks like “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” on which he admitted that he wouldn’t let his daughter listen to his songs. The Eminem Show was a good finale, a decent last bow out. After all, what can a magician do after he’s explained his tricks? Nothing but pack up and go home, of course, unless the audience demands an Encore.

Eminem’s fourth album was more than two years in the making, and it proves conclusively that the demand for his work has outlasted his supply of worthwhile material. The 23-track Encore is so long that three songs spill over onto a second disc, and I can count the ones worthy of release on one hand. With several fingers left, including Em’s favorite one. Its title is appropriate – Encore feels like a collection of leftovers from the last record, played as half the house is heading for their cars.

The joke this time seems to be that Eminem fans will buy whatever half-hearted, uninspired work he turns out. There is ample evidence throughout this record that Em didn’t even try. The lyrics on Encore seem to have been made up on the spot, rambling as they do through every thought that crosses Mathers’ mind. “My 1st Single” repeats belching and farting noises while Em sings “poo poo ka ka” seriously and brags about ruining a catchy song with silly verses. And you haven’t heard anyone waste a beat like Mathers does on “Big Weenie,” which sounds like something Alanis Morissette would have written in her notebook in second grade.

Roughly half the record is given over to stream-of-consciousness freestyles about… pretty much nothing. Shady makes his one token appearance on “Just Lose It,” sadly the sprightliest track, and without his guidance, Eminem just isn’t very funny. His targets are broad and simple this time, too. I mean, Michael Jackson? I tired of making fun of Michael Jackson when I was in a high school band. And get this, Em reserves a whole song (“Ass Like That”) to shoot back at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I’m not sure Mathers got the memo, but Triumph is a puppet. He’s not real.

To be fair, Mathers does swing for the big boys once or twice. “Mosh” is a sustained burst of venom aimed right at George W. Bush, on which Em suggests that the president should be given an AK-47 and sent to fight his own oil wars. But mostly, the barbs are blunted and the humor is scarce. Encore is the first Eminem album that really isn’t any fun at all.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if diary-entry Marshall Mathers weren’t so boring. He gives a dry cataloguing of rappers with grudges against him in “Like Toy Soldiers” that’s a chore to plow through (despite the catchy Martika sample), and even musters up an honest-to-gosh apology on “Yellow Brick Road.” His ode to Kim this time out is “Puke,” a very silly trifle that doesn’t even touch the Shady-fueled murder fantasies of previous records. And his lullaby to his daughter Hailie, “Mockingbird,” is sweet, but doesn’t pack the punch of “Hailie’s Song.” Even the violence fantasia, “One Shot 2 Shot,” is riddled with fear and social conscience. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course, but it is less dangerous and less interesting.

Essentially, we as listeners are the single girls of the world, and Eminem has become the nice guy we all say we want. The truth is, of course, that we don’t want the nice guy, we want the unpredictable, scary, potentially violent guy, because he’s just more interesting. Even the shoot-the-audience finale of this record can’t balance off the nearly 80 minutes of lazy, sensitive, confessional drivel before it.

Now, normally, I am the undying champion of the nice guy. So why in this case am I less interested in Mathers without his psychotic, lying alter egos? I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the music. Rap is a lyric-driven art form, much like folk music, and without a captivating perspective fueling the lyrics, the repetition gets dull. The music on Encore is stark, simplistic and hookless. The focus has to be on the lyrics. With his words, Mathers could have taken the blank slate of his backing tracks and shaped them into something gripping.

But no. Mathers has dispensed with his fascinating lies and manipulations, but hasn’t replaced them with anything. He rambles, he talks about what a dangerous rapper he is without once proving it, and he sounds afraid to offend. He writes about his life without giving you a window into it, often adding syllables and lines just to fill up space. Drawing from life is fine, of course – most of my favorite artists do little else – but what separates the artist from the guy on the street is perspective. Mathers has the skill, but he’s failed to present a compelling point of view.

And this from the guy who was all point of view four years ago. The best we can hope for is that Encore is a transitional album, a bridge from the Sybil-esque carnival of the first three into something else. It seems more likely, though, that the master satirist only had the one trick, and he’s all out of things to say. Eminem is too talented a rapper to waste his time on albums like this. Let’s hope he finds his focus soon, because Encore is the least interesting and least forgivable thing he’s done.

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This is the second column I wrote this week. The first is more bloggy, dealing with a wedding and a celebrity death and other personal-type non-music-review things. It’s in the archive if you’d like to read it.

Next week, we play catch-up as a prelude to the following week’s Top 10 List.

See you in line Tuesday morning.