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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? EMINEM'S ENCORE.  
   
   
 

And so the backlash begins.

When you've been as celebrated and argued about as Eminem has, op-ed pages and platinum plaques mounting, eventually you reach a stage in your career when you can't shock or surprise anyone anymore. When your unique talent no longer amazes.

And then what?

For Marshall Mathers, that moment occurs with Encore, a record too

 
 

many critics hate as if to compensate for how much they loved his earlier albums. You can't doubt Encore somewhat disappoints -- it's a holding action, a familiar run-through of established routines and strengths -- but is it such a colossal disappointment? I don't think so, but it does put me in the unenviable position of defending a record I don't quite love myself. But, c'mon, Em's still Em, and now we have to redefine what we think of him and his stature in the

     
 

pop/rap firmament. It's about time.

Because the rapper approaches his music in such an autobiographical manner, it's hard for the listener not to do the same -- which has been part of his success. Too much hip-hop exists in a fairy-tale land of imagined murder and anonymous house parties that it can be hard to relate to it on a personal level. Confessional to his core, Eminem has written mostly about his life, articulate as Jay-Z but more introspective and vulnerable. Beyond his celebrity status, his willingness to open up makes him seem accessible to his fans. We feel like we know him. And such intimate connection creates a sense of ownership. It's true of both normal listeners and of music writers … and now they'll all have to deal with the fact that Em hasn't come through for once.

So far, the prevailing reaction has been resentment. The consensus of the negative reviews is that Encore runs too long, covers familiar thematic territory and proves that its creator isn't growing up, although he's now 32. This is all true. But every Eminem album runs too long, and, to be fair, he handles the CD-era's length problems better than just about any other rapper. And while his on-again-off-again relationship with his ex-wife Kim doesn't offer any revealing moments here, his misogyny and fatherly devotion continue to produce some fascinating songs.

As for the last charge, his inability to mature, I too hope that Encore's mixed response causes him some soul-searching. Let's remember that his superstar status was built on a juvenile sense of humor that never seemed to jive with his intelligence and wit. If he can grow up without becoming a bore, his best days are ahead of him, not behind.

In truth, Encore's greatest failing is its almost slavish reconstruction of his last album, The Eminem Show. (In fact, the two records' titles almost suggest two parts of a whole.) Both albums play over the span of a pretend concert performance, both open with a state-of-the-Em address, both offer sweet ballads to his daughter Hailie, both love and hate Kim, both pick on easy-target celebrities, both hate (but secretly crave the affection of) groupies, both incorporate really awful classic-rock songs as uninspired samples on occasion, and both tackle his homophobia in unconstructive ways.

But here's the thing: I love The Eminem Show, which most people seemed indifferent to. Wasn't as "genius" as The Marshall Mathers LP, I was told. But if Mathers made him a so-called "voice of a generation," such a moniker indicated his potential rather than proved that the record was indeed his crowning achievement. "Stan," from Mathers, might still be his best song, but too many other tracks catered to a base level of comedy involving name-calling and cheap "shock" swearing. If he was the mouthpiece of a generation, then it was an uninteresting generation acting up without any self-knowledge of the pathos behind such outbursts.

Mathers made Mathers a white-hot star, but The Eminem Show was where he dealt with the fame and its by-products. Normally, the follow-up is where the artist starts whining and bitching about his notoriety, and soon enough the pity party results in the star losing a great amount of his commercial clout. Instead, Eminem looked back at its writer's life with bracing honesty. Oh sure, we still had dumb-ass jokes, but the 2002 album balanced the antisocial attitudes with a candor that made even the despicably anti-female "Superman" and "Drips" utterly gripping. In fiction, we become fascinated with rogues and heathens if we understand how they got that way. Likewise, The Eminem Show portrayed an oddly inspiring life, showing both how Em's background paved the way for his success and how that childhood baggage also made him an extremely flawed man. Just as important, the music had deepened. Mathers' radio-ready sheen sounds terribly dated now, but Eminem is steely and claustrophobic, more varied and striking.

Encore lacks the sonic jolt of Eminem, but it ain't wack either. Dre hasn't given his boy a hit as indelible as 50 Cent's "In Da Club," but he consistently lays down a menacing groove to juice Eminem's bitter vocals. And no one's bothered to mention just how great Em's flow remains. His cadence, his stress on phonetic sounds over simple way-day-may-say rhyming, his range of voices and tones -- it's truly remarkable and has greatly influenced the hip-hop landscape. Talent isn't the problem; lack of direction is. He's still famous, he's still angry, he still has women problems, he still loves his daughter … and so what?

Without a strong purpose, without the brilliant curveballs of "Square Dance" or the Hailie-sung hook of "My Dad's Gone Crazy," Encore resigns itself to strong craft. And with Em handling much of the production duties, he turns in his best effort behind the boards yet -- especially in relation to his mediocre work on Fiddy's record. His ear remains focused on the mainstream, but the bouncy "My 1st Single," the stark "Like Toy Soldiers" and the vengeful "Puke" offer compelling beats that outsmart most of contemporary hip-pop. Nevertheless, this may be the first Eminem record that you laser in on the music instead of the content. "Puke" is the prefect example of this, a slice of catchy rhythm at the service of a tired and unconvincing salvo against his ex-wife. Elsewhere, on the Nate Dogg-spiked "Never Enough," he's merely repeating a successful collaboration from Eminem, decent in its own right but just makes you long for the first go 'round.

So where does this leave Mr. Mathers? At a crossroads. On Encore, he sets the record straight on his controversial teenage freestyle tape where he slagged off his black ex-girlfriend, and he illuminates his difficult adolescence when loving rap music as a white kid made him a target of ridicule. But other than that, the album doesn't hold many insights into this thirtysomething millionaire who wants to be the perfect father while trying to get laid. Still, I'm not too angry about Encore's relative shortfalls. But then again, I never saw him as the voice of a generation either. In fact, I'm hoping that his inevitable descent from the pop stratosphere will help him abandon multiplatinum dreams and focus on his growth as an artist. He can keep desperately trying to push millions of units, but then he'll always be at the mercy of commercial compromise and lowest-common-denominator manipulation. He should expect more of himself.

If anything, Encore stumbles because he's trying to match audience expectations that he's partially outgrown. In the best possible scenario, this record's inevitable critical backlash could be the best thing for him.

 

Believe the Hype rating: 6 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.