Eminem faces his (possible) final curtain with a frustrating album that may be insipid in parts, but is totally inspiring in others…
At the back of Michael Stipe’s fridge, conspicuously uncorked, a jeroboam of organic, environmentally-friendly champagne nestles, waiting for another, better day. In Bruce Springsteen’s cooler, rows and rows of suitably blue-collar celebratory beer languish, gathering refrigerated dust, waiting for a party that won’t happen. Over at the Dixie Chicks’ place, a pile of fiddles and banjos huddle in preparation for an administration-change hoe-down that will just have to cool its boots for another four years.
Because Bush won. He won, and the rock do-gooders (and we at NME can, in a small way, count ourselves among them) lost. High time, then, for rock’s number one do-badder to jump back into the fray and do what he does best – piss the right wing off and spoil the party a little. Ironically, Eminem’s ‘Encore’ was not meant to be out so soon after the US election – rapacious bootlegging of the album has forced its release date forward. Even so, what better time for America’s anarchist Antichrist to come blasting back? He’ll make us feel better, won’t he?
Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. One thing’s for certain – anyone expecting Marshall’s usual mixture of inflammatory outrage, introspective musings and party-hearty buffoonery will end up a little flustered and flummoxed. It’s an album of bluff and double-bluff, sophistry and suggestion, the rapper’s most overtly political material to date and, unless we are very much misinterpreting it, the very real possibility that ‘Encore’ represents Eminem’s retirement speech, at least in his current guise, a fact borne out by the fact that a new persona is explicitly introduced in the track ‘Rain Man’. Seriously, this might be the death of Eminem, or at least of Slim Shady. Lyrically, he seems intent on bringing ongoing disputes to a close, debunking and disseminating the significance of his work, letting us all know how easy it all is and basically intimating that he’s not even trying any more. Is he doing this out of pure braggadocio, or signposting the end of the road? And what are we to infer from the album title itself, a pretty straightforward articulation of a final flourish, the end of a spectacle? Is the problem that, as he once rhymed in leaner times, he “just don’t give a fuck”?
Well, a good half of ‘Encore’ certainly sounds, musically at least, as if there were more pressing issues – the smoking of blunts, coming up with amusing outfit ideas for future videos – than ensuring a basic level of compositional complexity for every track. Too often, perfunctory click-beats and directionless noodles of bass are served up without spice or variation. The single ‘Just Lose It’ is a prime example, with Em reduced to making funny noises to keep things interesting. The fact that those noises are the most interesting things about the track tells its own story. The very fact that the target of its teasing, knowingly throwaway lyrics is Michael Jackson suggests that Em is severely guilty of coasting. Mocking Jacko isn’t just shooting fish in a barrel, it’s stuffing a mackerel into a jam jar and then blasting it with a bazooka – only nowhere near as much fun.
You can write off a good 50 per cent of the album’s tracks before you even get started – ‘Yellow Brick Road’ is sombre in tone, part-autobiographical and part-confessional in lyrical content, but it’s absolutely nothing we haven’t heard before or, more to the point, seen before in 8 Mile. The Dre-produced ‘Ass Like That’ and ‘Big Weenie’ are silly, groin-levelled doodles that demonstrate both producer and rhymer aren’t just on autopilot, they’re having a nice snooze in the cockpit while the plane plummets towards Earth. Or to put it another way, these tracks are undercooked juvenile shite.
‘Mockingbird’ is the kind of mawkish glop that all major hip-hop artists feel the need to offer up at some point in their career as some kind of moral penance – in this case a moonlit lullaby to Em’s daughter. We all know he loves her – if he stopped allowing her to crop up in his songs so much, we’d love her a lot more too. ‘Never Enough’ and ‘One Shot 2 Shot’ are aimless, diverting enough posse cuts, in which we are reminded yet again that, whenever he invites his mates along to join him, they tend to dilute his brilliance rather than urge him on to new heights.
And yet. The pedestrian half of ‘Encore’ only serves to underline how awesome the other half is, most of which is sandwiched together on the middle of the disc for your convenience. And it is awesome (we’re not talking in the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure sense of the word either).
‘Like Toy Soldiers’ is a case in point. The best track of this album, and probably any album this year, it should be appalling. It interpolates (by which we mean ‘steals’) the chorus to a long-forgotten ’80s power ballad by Martika, which would be a surefire route to disaster in anyone else’s hands. Instead, with its martial drumbeat, unashamedly vast-scale soft rock dynamics and that similarly monolithic chorus, it is perhaps hip-hop’s first genuine lighters-in-the-air stadium anthem. And yet it’s probably the most personal track on the album (apart from ‘Puke’, Em’s gleefully puerile broadside at ex-wife Kim – yeah, that old chestnut – which sounds unnervingly like Maroon 5 and is punctuated by the sound of the MC dry-heaving his guts up) as Em tries to draw a line under the various beefs he and his cohorts have been embroiled in. “Even though the battle was won/I feel like we lost it/I spent too much time on it/Honestly I’m exhausted”, he admits. If the sheer volume and widescreen sweep of ‘Like Toy Soldiers’ is a cover for this exhaustion, then it sure works.
And then there’s ‘Mosh’. Oh boy, there’s ‘Mosh’.
Should ‘Encore’ prove to be a swansong, then ‘Mosh’ is its blaze of glory, a scalding assault on the Bush regime that hits all the harder for its arriving days too late. The rapper sounds absolutely livid as he mounts a stealthy assault on the Prez that swells with density and rage over its five minutes until fire and brimstone is raining down on the shitwit Texan’s perpetually befuddled head. Although you might argue that everything Eminem says is inherently political through the sheer numbers that he reaches and the sheer anti-social nature of most of what he espouses, this is a different kettle of politicised fish entirely. “If it rains, let it rain/Yeah, the wetter the better/They ain’t gonna stop us, they can’t/We’re stronger now more than ever”, he rages with a demented fervour that makes Rage Against The Machine sound like Belle & Sebastian. And if that non-specific rabble-rousery is a little on the vague side, the likes of “Stomp, push, shove, mosh/Fuck Bush until they bring our troops home” should make it crystal clear. On a more base level, it’s fucking fantastic to jump up and down and bang your head to, which is the level where politics and pop most effectively connect.
Nothing else matches this planet-quaking double whammy, but there are numerous other highlights. The aforementioned ‘Puke’ is one. ‘My 1st Single’ is an insanely catchy romp full of Neptunes-style electronic funk and knowingly dumb-ass choral silliness, in which Em sabotages his own pop-friendly hook with a torrent of self-deprecation and lyrical filth. “As long as I’ve got Dr Dre on my team/I’ll get away with murder!” he beams. ‘Rain Man’ is simply preposterous (and has Em announcing that “my new name is Rain Man”, perhaps sneakily ushering in his next Doctor Who-style regeneration), a bewildering lyrical gush of Tourette’s/free association/speaking in tongues that it is impossible to process at normal speed, let alone get offended by. And ‘Encore/Curtains Down’ is the archetypal ‘gang’s all here’ show-closer, only with much more swearing and ‘the gang’ in this case being Dr Dre and 50 Cent, who are really the only two of Em’s collaborators who deserve to share his applause. A round of applause which, by the way, hidden-significance-spotters, ends with Eminem blowing his brains out.
So, curtains down? Really? The fact is that Em has so many dramatis personae on the go that he could release another three farewell albums this week. But with half an album where he sounds positively knackered, and another half where he has gone, sonically and lyrically, as far as he can go… is this the end? If it is, he’s gone, showbiz-style, with an album that leaves us wanting more, in every sense.