In one of many surprising asides in his recent memoir, Chronicles, Bob Dylan says that he suffered a crisis of confidence in the late 1980s, brought on by a meeting with Kurtis Blow. After Dylan rapped–yes, rapped– on Blow’s 1986 song “Street Rock,” Blow turned him on to N.W.A and Public Enemy. Then, during the making of1989’s Oh Mercy, as Dylan struggled to create the kind ofwild-mercury music that had once come so easily to him, he becameconvinced that he’d lost the “power and dominion over the spirits” that made his music possible–you know, his flow–and that the next person imbued with that power would be a rapper.
“Somebody different,” he remembers thinking, “was bound to come along sooner or later who would know that world, been born and raised with it…be all of it and more. Someone with a chopped topped head and a power in the community. He’d be able to balance himself on one leg on a tightrope that stretched across the universe and you’d know him when he came– there’d be only one like him…. He’d be doing it with hard words and he’d be working eighteen hours a day.”
Slim Shady, please stand up. Dylan never mentions Eminem by name–or, for that matter, by color, although he does say this hypothetical MC will be a tougher exemplar of his genre than Elvis Presley was of his. But it’s hard to imagine he’s talking about anyone else. Ever since 1999’s The Slim Shady LP made him a rap star, a rock star, and the subject of endless culture-war skirmishes, Eminem has displayed that power, that command of hard words–and he’s been on that tightrope, too. Accordingly, Eminem’s fourth album, Encore, walks a fine line. It includes some ofthe most thoughtful music of Eminem’s career, and some of the butt-stupidest, and while there’s a lot to like about both, the album feels transitional and muddled, the work of an artist cleaning out his closet while mulling over his next move.
Songs like “My 1st Single,” “Rain Man,” and “Ass Like That” are so sophomoric that they border on surreal, all syncopated dis-gibberish and loony celebrity baiting–grieving Christopher Reeve fans, consider yourselves warned. By the time Eminem’s “rewound” his own rhymes and clucked like a chicken on “My 1st Single”–with its rattling I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Timbaland beat, probably the hottest instrumental Em’s punched up in a spotty career as a producer–we’re acutely aware of two things. One, nobody writes better, more verbally agile battle raps about Jessica Simpson and the Olsen twins than Eminem. Two, at this point he could write this stuff in his sleep, or while reading US Weekly on the john.
But there are also signs that Eminem is thinking about his legacy. The seething anti-Bush single “Mosh” may not have brought droves of Eminem acolytes to the polls last November, but it suggests that Em–like fellow potty-mouth-turned-activist Howard Stern– realizes that his gifts have uses beyond FCC-baiting and fart jokes. The freaky-girl ode “Crazy in Love” may mark the first time Eminem has spoken kindly of a female who’s not his daughter, although “kindly” is a relative term. And on “Like Toy Soldiers,” over a stirring, “Jesus Walks”style loop of Martika’s doleful ’80s hit, Eminem brings light, not heat, to a couple years’ worth of beefs,from 50 Cent’s feud with the Murder Inc. crew to Em’s conflict with rapper Benzino and The Source’s edit staff, stating his casewhile resisting the urge to pour gas on any fires.
The Source controversy–which peaked when Benzino and CEO David Mays, the magazine’s co-founders, called a press conference to play reporters a tape of an early Eminem rap, “Foolish Pride,” that denigrates African-American women–indirectly inspires the album’s best song. “Yellow Brick Road” brings it all back home, to the beshitted Detroit of Eminem’s teen years; it’s a slice ofautobiography more richly detailed than 2002’s triumphalist quasi-biopic 8 Mile, and as compellingly narrated as any of the fictional revenge fantasies he’s put on record (“97′ Bonnie& Clyde,” “My Fault”). Captivated by hip-hop, young Marshall crosses tracks both literal and metaphorical, and finds that his race gets him little on either side. He dumps his Troops for Pumas when MC Shan says to, gets beat up at the mall for wearing an Africa medallion, and hangs out in his friend’s basement, marveling at “how racist but dope the X-Clan’s tape is.” Finally, he has a fling with a black girl, gets jilted, and writes “Foolish Pride.” Then, at the end of “Yellow Brick Road,” something weird happens, something that’s never happened on an Eminem record before: He apologizes, and actually seems to mean it. Ironically,it’sEncore’s most shocking moment.