Eminem has spent years aiming his vitriol at gays, women, his mother, his daughter's mother, and a shooting gallery of pop culture's most easily lampooned walking punchlines. But on his new single "Mosh," he stops attacking scapegoats and straw men and finally goes after the people who actually wield power. Over Dr. Dre's apocalyptic productionall rain-clouds and thunderclapsEminem launches into a searing, overtly emotional attack on President Bush and his administration's bloodlust and misplaced priorities. Eminem has always been angry, but his anger has never before been this righteous, focused, or plugged in to what matters in American life.
Then, lest anyone think that the music world's most pampered and rewarded adolescent has grown up, he begins the next track ("Puke") with the sound of vomiting before once again railing against a certain "fuckin' cokehead slut," who, as the song's title attests, makes him want to puke. Eminem's wisecracking, scatological Slim Shady persona resurfaces for the entire middle portion of the album, but that ends around "Ass Like That," a track so muddled that it's hard to tell whether it's a song-length putdown of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog or an elaborate backhanded homage. The song backfires spectacularly, because Eminem and Triumph essentially share the same shtickdeflating celebrity egos with barbed wisecracksand because at this point, Triumph is a lot funnier and more pointed in his putdowns than his human counterpart. Naturally, it boils down to context and perspective: When Eminem first started taking the piss out of celebrities in his songs and videos, he was the consummate underdog. Now that he's amassed a colossal fortune and countless awards, he's a Goliath picking on Davids whose fame could disappear by the time Eminem drops his next album.
That's a shame, because when Eminem lets his Slim Shady clown mask slip and raps from the heart, the results are emotionally wrenching. "Yellow Brick Road" delves deep into his past, forthrightly addressing the infamous homemade tapes that The Source attacked as racist. The song provides a vivid sense of context through an almost novelistic look at the rapper's much-mythologized teen years, and at what it meant to be desperately in love with hip-hop during rap's late-'80s golden age. On "Mockingbird," Eminem lets his hatred of his ex-wife lie dormant just long enough to provide his daughter with a haunting account of how parents sometimes just can't make it work, no matter how much both parties want to.
At times, Eminem's old perpetual-adolescent shtick connects, thanks largely to shiny, propulsive Dr. Dre production. But for the most part, Encore's strained, vaguely sad, regressive wackiness makes a lucid and compelling argument that Eminem should retire Slim Shady and let the real, serious Marshall Mathers stand up and be heard.