The Filth And The Fury
Shady's back and he's royally pissed--but it's not Kim's neck he wants to wring this time, it's your very own. Not since Lou Reed released a double album of room tone with obnoxious ssspizzzupp! scraping sounds on 1975's Metal Machine Music has a major artist so brazenly thrown down his contempt for the audience as Marshall Mathers does in the sure-to-be-million-selling Encore (Aftermath Records). It's not enough that Em pukes on us (while crooning, "You--don't--know--how--sick you make me/You make me fucking sick to my stomach"), he also shits in our face while merrily declaiming that the very song you're hearing could've been a number-one single--except he decided to fuck it, and you, over. (The endlessly repeated effects of a trumpeting bowel movement followed by the descent of a bolus of Eminem-shit represent a literally sickening new peak in realism.) By the end, he draws a handgun on the audience and fires into the crowd at random, finally putting the pistol in his own mouth. The last words of Encore--spoken in the robotic, post-tracheotomy voice Em assigns to Christopher Reeve--are "See you in hell, fuckers!"
There has been nobody in American music since Stephen Sondheim who has the gift for breathtaking feats of prosody that Eminem has. (Lest you think that a coy comparison, go back and compare.) He coins not just unexpected rhymes but shocking word choices, jarringly abrupt image contrasts, narrative left turns, and neck-snapping rhythmic shifts that give every beat anticipation, sudden reversal, the delight of the new. And nobody in recent popular culture has crossed or blurred so many lines; his compulsive taboo-breaking is always not quite right but never merely "incorrect." Who else could woo female listeners while acting out a prolonged fantasy of his ex-wife's murder, or get repeat buys from white teens while blaming them for the racist fluke of his own success? He always captures the moment he's working in more acutely than any other brand-name artist. And there's always a one-of-a-kind form of suspense: You want to know what's going to make him erupt this time.
He brings the rage in Encore and tries to up the ante by aiming the barrel at us, not at exes or haters or Insane Clown Posse. But what did we ever do to the guy but make him rich and beloved? Maybe the old saw is right and no good deed goes unpunished, because now that we've given Marshall a fame he claims not to have wanted, he subjects us to several brands of hurtful payback--like a prolonged indulgence in his desire for gold-plated Negro Credibility. In "Spend Some Time," where Em tries to strap on what he calls "my manly strut" while bellyaching in the VIP zone with Obie Trice and 50 Cent, the source of Em's withering contempt is an old standby: bitches that just want his money and connections. Elsewhere, in "Like Toy Soldiers," he indulges in his ridiculous beef with the blowhards of Source and uses military metaphors with a bogus semper-fi stoicism that makes him seem like Malibu's Most Wanted. I guess it's nice to know that he's comfortable enough with us at last to share these needs, but it's sad to realize he aspires to the thuggy realness of artists (like his gold mine, 50 Cent) who don't come up to the ankles of his talent.
Puking, farting, and firing gunshots at us--these are the leitmotifs of Encore. Cracking the surface of Eminem's ire, wondering what terrible mistake we made, we come across another object of contempt. In "My 1st Single," he parodies his virtuosic loop-de-looping, endless streaming torrents of rhyme by gasping for air in the midst of run-on sentences; after his second Jessica Simpson reference (in "Rain Man") he moans, "I don't even gotta make no goddamn sense/I just did a whole song and I didn't say shit." By the time we get to "Big Weenie" ("You're just jealous of me/Cause I'm what you wanna be/So you just look like an idiot/When you say these mean things/'Cause it's so easy to see/You're really just a big weenie") the Freudian collect call from home is crystal clear. Eminem's geyser of bodily excretions is really a projection of his own inner direct rage.
Knowing the other guy's pain never makes it feel better to get shit on. Well, that's not quite true: In Em's last two albums, we could slide between being victim and co-victimizer (as in the scary delirium of socking Kim in the trunk; or playing along with his Rupert Pupkin-like fan, Stan) and enjoy the S as much as the M. Here, we aren't given the option: Taste the withering disgust he has for our taste in "Just Lose It" and "Ass Like That," which seem to be truculent responses to somebody's request for a get-down dance single. Both try to riff on the combination sleaze and sleaze parody in André 3000's "Spread." (At one point Em even zanily pours the barf bag on his own head: "Gwen Stefani, will you pee-pee on me, please!") In "My 1st Single," he makes a whole performance-art federal case out of sabotaging his latest moment of top-10 glory by accelerating his hummingbird rhymes to a tempo so post-human I had to read the liner notes to understand a word. Previously, Eminem made flipping off the audience a fun game the whole family could play. This time he's saving the laughs for himself.
It's always frustrating to watch an artist with top-shelf talent reach that inadvertently satiated moment when there's really nothing important to say, nothing to add. It may be that Eminem is perfecting his formal chops for later, more personal work. Certainly there is a great deal on Encore that on technical terms can stand up to the best anyone's doing now. Check out how he turns the incredibly familiar first 10 seconds of Heart's "Crazy on You" into the lodestar of a meditation on dysfunctional sex that feels like a nicotine-induced panic attack--all planted on the foundation of the Wilson sisters' opening banshee wail. The fanciness of the footwork is dazzling, but how many upchuck sound cues and Nick Lachey jokes can you take?
It may be that Eminem is misreading his own process. He thinks his murderous anger at his mom and his ex-wife were the fuel that made the early work go. But it was his choice to do something black hip-hop artists feel they can't dare in the same way--that is, make himself the world's jester--that closed the deal for his mass audience. We love Eminem because he can so deftly mock himself as well as mock (or mock-murder) others. His masterstroke was bringing the comic into a punishingly self-serious form. Next time, he needs to lean into the mirth and lay off the Roman showers.
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