In one of many surprising asides in his recent memoir, Chronicles, BobDylan 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.Aand Public Enemy. Then, during the making of 1989’s Oh Mercy,as Dylan struggled to create the kind of wild-mercury music that hadonce come so easily to him, he became convinced that he’d lost the”power and dominion over the spirits” that made his music possible–youknow, his flow–and that the next person imbued with that power wouldbe a rapper.
“Somebody different,” he remembers thinking, “was bound to come alongsooner or later who would know that world, been born and raised withit…be all of it and more. Someone with a chopped topped head and apower in the community. He’d be able to balance himself on one leg on atightrope that stretched across the universe and you’d know him when hecame– there’d be only one like him…. He’d be doing it with hardwords 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 MCwill 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 since1999’s The Slim Shady LPmade him a rap star, a rock star, and the subject of endlessculture-war skirmishes, Eminem has displayed that power, that commandof hard words–and he’s been on that tightrope, too. Accordingly,Eminem’s fourth album, Encore, walks a fine line. It includessome of the most thoughtful music of Eminem’s career, and some of thebutt-stupidest, and while there’s a lot to like about both, the albumfeels transitional and muddled, the work of an artist cleaning out hiscloset while mulling over his next move.
Songs like “My 1st Single,” “Rain Man,” and “Ass Like That” are sosophomoric that they border on surreal, all syncopated dis-gibberishand loony celebrity baiting–grieving Christopher Reeve fans, consideryourselves warned. By the time Eminem’s “rewound” his own rhymes andclucked like a chicken on “My 1st Single”–with its rattlingI-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Timbaland beat, probably the hottestinstrumental Em’s punched up in a spotty career as a producer–we’reacutely aware of two things. One, nobody writes better, more verballyagile battle raps about Jessica Simpson and the Olsen twins thanEminem. Two, at this point he could write this stuff in his sleep, orwhile reading US Weekly on the john.
But there are also signs that Eminem is thinking about his legacy. Theseething anti-Bush single “Mosh” may not have brought droves of Eminemacolytes to the polls last November, but it suggests that Em–likefellow potty-mouth-turned-activist Howard Stern– realizes that hisgifts 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 afemale who’s not his daughter, although “kindly” is a relative term.And on “Like Toy Soldiers,” over a stirring, “Jesus Walks”-style loopof Martika’s doleful ’80s hit, Eminem brings light, not heat, to acouple 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 case while resisting the urge to pour gas on any fires.
The Source controversy–which peaked when Benzino and CEO DavidMays, the magazine’s cofounders, called a press conference to playreporters a tape of an early Eminem rap, “Foolish Pride,” thatdenigrates African-American women–indirectly inspires the album’s bestsong. “Yellow Brick Road” brings it all back home, to the beshittedDetroit of Eminem’s teen years; it’s a slice of autobiography morerichly detailed than 2002’s triumphalist quasi-biopic 8 Mile,and as compellingly narrated as any of the fictional revenge fantasieshe’s put on record (“97′ Bonnie & Clyde,” “My Fault”). Captivatedby hip-hop, young Marshall crosses tracks both literal andmetaphorical, 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 themall for wearing an Africa medallion, and hangs out in his friend’sbasement, 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,” somethingweird happens, something that’s never happened on an Eminem recordbefore: He apologizes, and actually seems to mean it. Ironically, it’sEncore’s most shocking moment.