The Eminem show, that is. As a companion piece to the earlier write-up on Encore, this week we cover what is arguably Eminem's best work of all he has released thus far.
"The Slim Shady LP" was his debut, and it showed promise, but was occasionally undone by the sheer chaos that washed over it. On "The Marshall Mathers LP", an over the top attack on the idea of who people thought he should be because he was famous was released. At times it was vital, at times it echoed how lyrically paranoid Michael Jackson's recorded output began to sound by the early 90's - and it suffered because of this.
"The Eminem Show" works because here he has found a balance that previous albums lacked. There is still fury, but it has focus this time. Opening cut "White America" storms out of the gate with an angry, sinister beat that has Eminem taking the controversy head on. He addresses racism rather directly ("Let's do the math / If I was black / I would've sold half"). He sneaks in a snarky grin aimed at anyone afraid of the influence he has on youth culture ("I go to TRL / look how many hugs I get!") But even as you hear this line it's clear he's not saying this simply to brag - he's saying it to tear open his own celebrity, and further, the hypocrisy of many of his detractors. It's a refreshing change of subject from an artist with a focus that was once far too narrow. "Business" keeps things going by doing Eminem + Dr. Dre's spin on one of hip hop's greatest traditions, the boast track. A propulsive, siren-laced beat and an amusing early batman-spoofing opening make this a fun "strut" track. Immediately following, the tone turns down quick with the somber, heart-proudly-worn-on-sleeve "Cleaning out my closet." Many lambast him for using his life's struggles as a lyrical foil too much - specifically his parents. This is true to an extent, but with this track, he nails it in a way that makes every other song which touches on family insignificant. It isn't raw, half-focused shock-schlock like on "Insane" (a track from his later album Relapse.) It's just expulsion of personal demons set to a catchy pop beat - and like this album as a whole, the balance makes it work.
After this reflection, "Square Dance" shows off one of the more inventive beats heard by Dr. Dre on this album, and plays like a companion piece to "White America" - politically charged, thought-provoking, designed to push an idea, but using Eminem's own twisted, more than slightly warped point of view on the world in general to get the point across. From here the album enters a bit of a rough patch. "Soldier" and "Say Goodbye Hollywood" are built on solid foundations, but they feel like empty chest-beating anthems and don't offer much compared to what came before. And "Drips" is clear, shameless pandering to the people who listen just to hear him (and others) being overly disgusting and raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy. Could have easily been left out. Luckily the proceedings pick back up with the track that was used as the debut single for this album "Without Me." This track has a clear sense of Eminem knowing how the public reacted to his last 2 debut singles from albums released, and lampooning not only them, but himself - and taking the "making fun of his celebrity" tripe and giving it a much more light-hearted gloss than heard previously. "Sing for the moment" makes use of a catchy drumbeat fused atop Aerosmith's "Dream On" melody - other reviewers have derided this song as cheesy, but sometimes taking the well known songs to sample for the backdrop works well.
The final half of the album sags a bit - really, it's hard to carry on the fine momentum spun up in the early stages. Standouts like "Hailie's Song" and "My Dad's gone crazy" manage to lift and carry along the rest of the weaker tracks. "'Till I Collapse" is one of them - it sounds too much like "White America" in tone - aggressive beat, heightened anger in the vocals - it would have done better as a piece on another album. Presented here it comes off as too much of the same thing.
Love him or hate him, he has the capacity to produce thought-provoking and interesting work when it suits his fancy. This album was one of the moments where he did.