Five years after exploding onto the rap scene with The Slim Shady LP, Eminem has become a cultural phenomenon larger than anyone could have imagined. His name is synonymous with controversy, and there isn’t a public figure or special interest group he hasn’t crossed swords with. Not only that, but Eminem has broken ground musically, bending and shaping words like no one before him and proving his intellect stretches far beyond his ninth-grade education. In the process, he earned the respect and even awe of his peers and millions of fans.

Music Reviews
Music Reviews
Kim, where are you? (Courtesy of Aftermath)

Now that he’s reached that apparent apex, where can he go from here? If his latest record, Encore, is the answer, it’s nowhere new. Throughout the record, Eminem sounds like he’s on auto-pilot, as he explores few new themes and is content to continue rapping about his ex-wife, his mother and the media circus that follows him. He shows signs of complacency on songs such as the anti-Kim (Eminem’s ex-wife) tirade “Puke” and the cheeky “My 1st Single,” and too often he resorts to toilet humor and tasteless potshots at the likes of Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Christopher Reeve.

But even at his worst, Eminem is better than 95 percent of the rappers on the charts today. If his ideas have grown a bit stale, his lyrical style is still second to none and is more than enough to compensate. On the ominous banger “Never Enough” and the auto-biographical “Yellow Brick Road” he effortlessly weaves his lyrics together with his distinctive complex rhyme schemes and internal rhymes — so intricate and crisp that writing them out doesn’t do them justice.

Although Eminem has always been a bit two-faced with his juvenile Slim Shady persona and his more serious Marshall Mathers side, never has it been so evident as on Encore. He is both at his most childish and his most staid. At one moment, he’s ogling teen idols on “Ass Like That” and talking about his dick on “Big Weenie,” and in another he’s delivering a heartfelt tribute to his daughter on “Mockingbird” and criticizing the Bush administration with surprising sentiment on “Mosh.” It might seem impossible that one record could contain both the lines “So Gwen Stefani, can you pee pee on me please?” and “Maybe this is God just saying we’re responsible for this monster –— this coward that we have empowered,” but Encore has them both.

By no means is Encore Eminem’s death knell — he’ll continue to be a force in hip-hop for some time — but it is a frustrating step back for one of the genre’s most innovative and talented artists. Perhaps it’s a bit too much to ask for a Marshall Mathers LP every two years, but for someone with such God-given ability, he should be held to a higher standard. We’ll let you slide this time, Marshall, but don’t let it happen again.

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