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Show Don't Tell

 

Eminem: The Eminem Show

Aftermath/Interscope, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: June 10, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It may be the ultimate exercise in stating the obvious to say that Eminem has always possessed an inflated sense of his own importance, or at least of his place in the pop-cultural scheme of things. Just exactly who are the "other Slim Shadys," for example, he calls out during the chorus of "The Real Slim Shady," from 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP? Similarly, when he raps "Everybody only wants to discuss me" on "Without Me," the lead-off single to The Eminem Show, it begs the question: When was the last time his name was on "everyone"'s lips? The 2001 Grammy awards, perhaps? Such bravado invites easy dismissal: There's a lot of water under the bridge of controversy between then and now, after all.

But it's Eminem's rare gift to turn his boasts into self-fulfilling prophecies: When he arrogantly asserts that the current media landscape "seems so empty without me," the very act of mouthing the words invests them with truth. Suddenly, the man born Marshall Mathers seems irreplaceable; as Voltaire might have said, if he didn't exist, we'd have had to invent him.

But it's doubtful that any of us could have invented such a vexing jumble of controversy, contradictions and shell-game fake-outs as Eminem. And in fact, that's part of his appeal: Who else can lament that the world "won't let me be me" while hiding behind three different personas? Who else would go out of his way to praise his daughter (actually warbling, with at least as much real skill as any member of 'N Sync possesses -- which is to say, not a lot -- on "Hailie's Song") and protest that he's a good father while also shamelessly exploiting her (as he did on "Bonnie and Clyde '97" from The Slim Shady LP and does again on Show's "My Dad's Gone Crazy")? When Em alternately lashes out at his mom and apologizes to her, as he does in the verses and chorus, respectively, of the aptly-titled "Cleanin' Out My Closet," he engages in the same maddening feints that have made him a star: Is he really a troubled young man with an all-consuming need to purge himself, to "clean out his closet," regardless of the consequences? Or is he just a calculating showman, unafraid to mine his personal past for the sake of controversy?

The answer, of course, is most likely both. Baring his soul -- and his dirty laundry -- to the world may indeed be therapeutic. But as Alanis Morissette has taught us, not every personal detail about one's personal life needs or merits as much attention as comes with a major music industry release. Writing and recording songs and skits about killing one's wife, or re-creating the real-life scenario in which one assaults a man for kissing his ex-wife ("The Kiss") is as much a cry for help as it is a display of canny, keep-em-guessing showbiz savvy.

But that way lies madness. While it's likely important for someone, somewhere, to devote much time, thought and energy to dissecting Eminem's psyche, a CD review isn't the forum in which to do it. Suffice it to say, then, that if one can manage to put aside one's reservations about the man behind the curtain, The Eminem Show -- like its two major-label predecessors -- is a compelling listen. "White America" thunders with echo-ey bombast as Eminem examines his particular success as a white rapper, with all of its fearful implications for suburban parents and record label executives. "Cleanin' Out My Closet" bristles with what seems to be real emotion, while "Square Dance" improbably and effectively twists a simple rural do-si-do rhythm into a creepy backdrop. Throughout -- on "Business," "Soldier," "Superman" and practically every other track -- Eminem displays his real gift, a talent for mercurial, serpentine rhyming that snakes around on itself like an oroboros with deceptive simplicity.

Not that there aren't a couple of missteps: "Sing for the Moment" unwisely samples Aerosmith's "Dream On" even as Eminem ruminates on his role as the trickster of modern entertainment (much as he does on "Say Goodbye Hollywood"). "Drips," meanwhile, unfortunately panders to that segment of the hip-hop audience for whom raunch is mandatory.

Those looking for insight into the real Slim Shady are likely to be frustrated. But taken with a mine full of salt, The Eminem Show, while not as arresting as The Marshall Mathers LP, is often fascinating in its lyrical twists and turns, both in terms of the rhymes themselves and the frustratingly coy glimpses they seem to give into the mind of their creator. If one can divorce oneself from the more unsettling implications of much of what escapes Eminem's mouth, and approach the disc, as its title suggests, as mere "show," it does offer rewards. Just how willing or able a listener is to ignore such troublesome notions, and whether it's right to ask one to do so, are different questions altogether.

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