Eminem - Encore
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Friends, readers, countrymen, lend me your eyes;
I come to praise Marshall, not to bury him.
The shitty rhymes that men do ruin them;
The great flows are oft forgotten by their critics;
So let it not be with Eminem. The noble critics
Hath told you Marshall was complacent:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Eminem predicted it.
Here, under leave of Dr Dre and the rest -
For Dre is an honourable man;
So are D12, all honourable men -
Come I to speak in Eminem's funeral.
Ach, balls to this rewriting Shakespeare stuff, even if Marshall does (self) consciously rewrite himself at various points during Encore (which is just as he’s always done, whether he’s quoting his own lyrics or rewriting his actual persona, meta-fans). Encore… once more, with feeling… But all the feeling’s drained out—it’s been slowly seeping out of him ever since “Kim”; everything after that is middle-of-the-road hokum, because once you’ve done the most extreme thing ever, everything else is bound to seem dull by comparison. But to try and constantly out-do oneself, to match up to those old standards of extremity, is not only impossible but disingenuous too; you either fail, and look like you’ve lost it, or you descend into parody, and look like you’ve lost it. At points Marshall Mathers does both on Encore, and at other points he does neither. Don’t believe everything that you read. But you don’t, do you? No? Good.
Because, first things first, Encore is not a disaster, certainly not on the level that some people (including friends of mine, people I respect) have been calling it. Sure, it’s his worst album since his first album (the cartoon gore, helium voice and street gothica never did much for me), but the two that came between the debut and the slump are so stellar that anything less than the sky king kissing us on the forehead and telling us he loves us is going to be a letdown. Does that mean its bad in and of itself though? Of course not; getting upset that it’s not as good as The Marshall Mathers LP is like getting upset that David isn’t as good as The Sistene Chapel. So why the fuss? Why the negativity? Why the clamour to denounce Em as having failed us?
The cover, CD and picture behind the CD play out Encore as a suicide note, but then you open the booklet and see that Em’s actually capping his audience and not himself. He puts the gun in his own mouth last, once everyone else is dead. So… career suicide? Killing his audience in one fell swoop? But of course, especially by bumping forward the release date to Friday 12th November, Encore sails straight to number one, just like “Just Lose It” did in the (UK) singles chart, despite all and sundry calling it crap. I can do whatever I like and you’ll still love me. Remember this is a little boy whose mommy didn’t love him, who never met his daddy, whose wife didn’t love him, who’s paranoid about his daughter not loving him because he’s, you know, fucking EMINEM; emotionally needy people push away the people they love in order to test whether or not their affection is real, is lasting. Em’s testing our affection, isn’t it obvious? Several times during the course of the album he openly admits that he can get away with any old shit, most notably on “Ass Like That”, where he takes a delicate, multi-faceted Dre backdrop composed of intriguing eastern sitar drones, one of the best beats on the album, and talks about his “pee-pee” and how he wants anal sex with underage teen popstars over the top of it in a comedy accent. Niiiiiiiice. Genius or madness? Or a very self-conscious and deliberate attempt to subvert his own reputation, to piss off and enthrall both critics and fans alike at the same time?
Encore starts promisingly enough, as “Evil Deeds” opens with an insistent enough beat and soundscape, setting up the narrative arc of the album (Eminem performs show; Eminem gets pissed off; Eminem shoots shit out of audience), only then he opens his mouth and what comes out is appalling. Not appalling like “Kim” appalled—not shocking, visceral, seat-of-your-vicarious-pants-how-long-can-I-listen-before-I’m-guilty appalling—just plain bad. In the same way that “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy” is just plain bad, only everybody creamed themselves over Skinner’s inept rap. Plus the lyrical subject—my mom is a bitch—smacks of contractual obligation. We know you hate your mom, Marshall. The next track, “Never Enough”, raises the bar from this ham-fisted opening, but not massively. Uninspired beat? Check. Lack of hooks? Check. Vague sense of disappointment that the only reason Em has snapped your head round and made you exclaim “what the fuck” so far is because he hasn’t snapped your head round yet? Check. What else is below-par? Like “Never Enough”, “Yellow Brick Road” is competent meta-rap, OK and OK and nothing more, apologist for perceived racism and misogyny. The Martika-sampling “Like Toy Soldiers” cranks it up a bit by want of the bizarre juxtaposition and more compelling (read: less predictable) rhymes; “Puke” is a half-assed hate-rap (swear a bit, talk about vomit, swear some more); “Mockingbird” is the obligatory nursery-rhyme for Haley; “Mosh” is a great moment in pop (or would have been, had it worked) but a crap song—Eminem simply can’t do slow, or even mid-paced—he needs to be rapping at 100mph, spilling lines like bullets from an automatic, the speed and delivery impressing at first take, the wealth of meaning and reference knocking you out on second take. But then he unleashes “My 1st Single” and it’s great, a refreshing beat that slaps you round the sides of the head like an older brother using your own hands against you, and Marshall (or Eminem, or Slim Shady, or whateverthefuck pseudonym he’s using now) actually really gets meta on your ass just like all those cultural critics said he would and did. Sure, had Missy or someone taken this beat they would have made it really nice and accomplished and it would sound great on radio and in the clubs, but balls to that; Marshall’s going to fuck-up the chorus by burping and talking about bitches and making it as radio-unfriendly as possible, and it’s like sabotage, like terrorism (am I allowed to put that?), like he’s daring you to enjoy this like you’d want to enjoy any old throwaway piece of nice pop tat. But you can’t.
Then there’s the unsettling, whispering “Rain Man”, the Christopher Reeve track, where Eminem both needlessly seeks to upset and also sets up his new identity, his next identity, his actual identity, maybe letting us know that all this time he’s been playing idiot-savant deliberately (we know, alright, and we love you for it). But then “Big Weenie” is a pussy little whinge-track about how nasty people are to Marshall (we know, alright, and we love you for it), and he plays it for maximum irritation factor once again, comedy voices, deliberately incompetent rhymes. Once again it’s the I can get away with murder petulant-child side of Marshall, and it’s not great, not at all, but it’s also not an accident. On several occasions Encore sounds like Eminem went into the studio in late October with a load of half-finished beats, drank a bottle of Jack and waited to see what happened. When it works it’s good—the inspired juvenilia of “Just Lose It” (remember what it was like to be 10 years old? remember Ren & Stimpy?), which, despite what the naysayers say, is a great single; “One Shot Two Shot” with D12 works as well as anything they’ve done (even if it is perhaps morally suspect [from a guy who did a 6-minute hip hopera about cutting his wife’s head off?]), and “Crazy In Love” is an enjoyable and breakneck 80s-big-rock-sampling (Heart! for fuck’s sake!) shag-anthem. And the “Em Calls Paul” skit is fucking genius.
And then he shoots his audience and himself. wtf?
Eminem is, and I don’t know if this is a fact that you could quantify but I’m gonna come out and say it anyway because I both suspect and believe it to be true, the biggest pop star in the world right now, and he’s got to that position by being incredibly smart and incredibly good, so smart and good that he’s never had to compromise what he does. He concocts, rides, and then dismantles characters, scenarios and entire fucking life-as-art meta-narratives right before our eyes, and Encore is the final act of the narrative he’s been playing out since 1998, maybe before. Don’t believe me? Look at the record covers! Murder-fantasy in character as Shady : poor little Marshall in the slums with nothing to hide behind : poor little Marshall on stage as Eminem with a curtain to hide behind (same pose, dudes) : poor little Marshall on stage as Eminem having had enough of pretending. He shoots his audience! He tells us, repeatedly, that he can get away with murder, that he can do whatever the fuck he likes, that we’ll still love him because we know how fucking good he is. Obvious? Yes. Worthless? No.
Back to Shakespeare…
I was his fan, this last five years:
But critics say he was complacent;
And critics they are honourable men.
He hath won over many fans across the globe
Whose ransoms did the Mathers coffers fill:
Did this in Marshall seem complacent?
When that the critics cried, Eminem hath prospered:
Complacency should be made of weaker stuff:
Yet critics say he was ambitious;
And critics they are honourable men,
You all did see that in the press.
He thrice presented us wicked albums,
Which some did thrice refuse: was this complacency?
Yet people say he was complacent;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what others spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Eminem,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
And back to Eminem…
See you in hell, motherfuckers.