Still on top of his game

Eminem's intricacy shines on latest CD


May 28, 2002|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I'm a pit bull off his leash," rapper Eminem snarls at one point in his new album The Eminem Show, then he later confides that his insecurities could eat him alive.

It's these sweeping emotional extremes and the ability to look so colorfully and unflinchingly at both sides of his personality that give the rapper's albums a power and complexity all but unrivaled on the contemporary pop scene.

Eminem's music, built around captivating hip-hop beats and his own machine-gun delivery, is a pop-culture puzzle that has caused anxious watchdog groups to condemn his music for violent and sexual imagery, critics to acclaim it for its storytelling prowess (he has won five Grammys) and millions of fans to buy it.

In an era when teens are fascinated by the chills and thrills of extreme sports, is it any wonder that millions of them also respond to Eminem's extreme music?

The Detroit rapper's last album, The Marshall Mathers LP, has sold nearly 9 million copies in the United States since its 2000 release, and retailers are predicting that The Eminem Show could be the first album since last summer to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week in stores. It arrives today.

The new CD is too long at almost 80 minutes, but its highlights offer Eminem's most gripping and revealing statements.

The words can be touching and funny, but also often troubling and ugly -- he still exhibits an unhealthy attitude toward women and employs a couple of anti-gay epithets, though none of the assaultive imagery that caused the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to denounce his last album.

In some ways, the album seems like a continuing progress report on the rapper's state of mind, leaving listeners to decide which parts are fictional and which are autobiographical.

Many of the characters in The Eminem Show (his dreaded mother Debbie, his evil ex-wife Kim, his cherished uncle Ronnie and his beloved daughter Hailie) are familiar from past albums, but he brings new focus and insights to the songs.

The most chilling moment comes when the rapper revisits the night in 2000 when he was arrested for using a gun to assault a man who had kissed Eminem's wife in a Michigan nightclub.

The smartest [thing] I did was take the bullets out of the gun 'cause I would have killed 'em both, he raps in "Cleaning Out My Closet," a song about exorcising personal demons that carries much of the narrative brilliance of "Stan," the standout track on his last album.

Eminem was sentenced last year to two years' probation on weapons charges in the incident, and he has said in interviews that he realizes the importance of showing more self-control. The "bullets" line in "Closet" passes that lesson to his audience at the same time that it serves as a harrowing reminder of how jealousy or rage can push one to the edge of insanity.

What makes Eminem such an extraordinary blend of commercial appeal and artistic accomplishment is that he can move from the darkness of "Cleaning Out My Closet" to the catchiness of pop tunes that seduce with their cute, nursery rhyme-like charm.

An example is "Without Me": Guess who's back/Back again/Shady's back/Tell a friend, he chants in the song, referring to his alter ego, Slim Shady. The number is a teasing boast about how the mainstream pop scene is empty without Shady's antics.

In the song, Eminem also draws a parallel between the controversy over him and the one surrounding Elvis Presley in the early days of rock. In the song, and in other parts of the album, he suggests that his being white in a predominantly black music field contributed to the controversy (white parents felt threatened) and his sales impact (white teens identified with him). He raps at one point: Let's do the math: If I was black I would have sold half.

The funniest line in the album is near the end when, in a slightly confessional tone, he admits he wouldn't let his own daughter listen to his X-rated music. You can picture anxious parents and watchdogs going, "Gotcha!"

Still, Eminem's daughter is 6. The question is what Eminem would say about the music if his child were a 14-year-old boy, which is well within the demographic range of his fan base.

Parents of teens who buy The Eminem Show should listen to the album to see if they feel they should discuss any of the themes with their youngsters. Even the most liberal probably will want to address a couple of points.

The tragedy is that there are so many youngsters who don't have the strong support system to provide such counsel. That void in the rapper's life is the pain echoing through the darkest moments of The Eminem Show. It is, ultimately, Eminem's most unsettling message.

Injuries at concert

About 30 people were injured during Eminem's Washington performance Saturday at HFStival; five were taken to the hospital.

Robert Hilburn is pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


The Eminem Show

(Interscope) ***

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