Rapping on Empty: Eminem
Rosen, Jody, The Nation
Several weeks ago the 32-year-old hip-hop superstar Eminem, America's staunchest and most spectacular amoralist, found himself in an unusual position, suddenly cast as the moral hope of his generation. The occasion was the release, just days before the presidential election, of "Mosh," a torrid anti-Bush protest single that endeared the rapper to the sort of older blue-state listeners whose musical taste runs more to James Taylor than 50 Cent, and who would otherwise have steered clear of a man known for his extravagant political incorrectness. Here was an Eminem song that a Nation charter subscriber could love: "No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil," Eminem bellows over a glum piano line and a martial beat. "No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal."
This brutishly effective piece of musical agitprop was accompanied by an animated video, directed by Ian Inaba of the activist group Guerrilla News Network, which concluded with images of a black-hooded Eminem leading a youthful throng on a march to voter registration tables. The video shot to the top of MTV's countdown and spread like wildfire over the Internet; for a few days Air America buzzed with hopeful talk of an "Eminem factor" in the upcoming election. But for some of us who found the idea that Eminem could deliver swing-state votes farfetched, "Mosh" held another kind of promise. The rapper's previous album, The Eminem Show (2002), had been a mess. Might the forthcoming Encore mark a return to form?
Well, let's just say it's been a dispiriting autumn all around. Encore, which arrived in stores nine days after Kerry's concession, has a strong claim to being the worst blockbuster record of 2004. It's dreary, it's plodding and, what's worse, it plods drearily at epic length. Encore is seventy-seven minutes and twenty songs long (a bonus disc adds three additional tunes, rounding the running time up to a neat hour and a half), and every song is buried under an avalanche of words. Eminem has always been prolix, but on earlier records like The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) his lyrics whizzed past in a blur of rhythm and wit. Encore, though, simply drags; for all the words spoken here--a torrent of pop culture references, invective and potty humor--you can't help feeling that this talented motormouth has run out of things to say.
And he knows it. "I don't even gotta make no god damn sense/I just did a whole song and I didn't say shit," Eminem raps at the conclusion of "Rain Man," the album's clomping centerpiece song. It's an amazingly cynical boast--I don't even gotta make no god damn sense--a veritable caricature of superstar complacency; but one listen through Encore will dispel any doubts that he's serious about his devotion to nonsense. Several songs are hitched to infantile singsong choruses that dissolve into a patter of gibberish. ("Da doing doing doing"; "poo poo ka ka"; "Oh ah ah ah oh ah"; etc.) Then there's "My 1st Single," a song that glories in its own meaninglessness. "This was supposed to be my first single/But I just fucked that off," Eminem raps. "Hey! So fuck a chicken, lick a chicken suck a chicken, beat a chicken/Eat a chicken, like it's a big cock, big a big cock." These lyrics are delivered over a jittery beat, punctuated by farting and belching sound effects, in a voice that occasionally squawks in imitation of a chicken--none of which, I can assure you, makes them any more amusing on a CD than in the pages of a journal of politics and ideas.
Such tin-eared attempts at humor would be annoying on any record; but they're especially depressing coming from Eminem, who has made some of the best comic art of the past decade. When he burst on the scene in the late 1990s, Eminem was a novel character: a self-proclaimed "white trash" rapper, up from a hardscrabble Midwestern childhood, who courted scandal with a fervor that was equal parts Johnny Rotten and Bart Simpson. …