Like "Just Lose It," much of Encore is catchy in the most basic wayhe and Dr. Dre still have a gift for uncanny hooksbut it's also a conscious rejection of his oeuvre, a self-critique most artists don't go through in private, much less lay bare for public scrutiny. "My 1st Single" has all the hallmarks befitting its titlecelebrity-skewering rhymes and insistent, scratchy beatbut they merely decorate the sound of Eminem unraveling, rhyming monosyllabic grunts and boasting, "Long as I got Dr. Dre on my team/I'll get away/with murder like O.J." Or was that confessing? Or lamenting?
On "Rain Man," a particularly dolorous track that features lengthy disquisitions on Christopher Reeve and on what constitutes "gay," he still manages to play with flow in remarkable fashion. "I don't gotta make no goddamn sense," he raps at the end. "I just did a whole song/and I didn't say shit." It's only because he says nothing so artfully and so unpredictably (has he been listening to those old Anticon tapes?) that songs like this and "Big Weenie," both of which are bewilderingly bad, aren't fast-forwardable. No other rapper would merit such indulgence.
And as Encore confounds his audience, Eminem's beginning to pay the dues he skipped the first time around, whether it's squeezing between Mase and Fat Joe, rappers he doubtless loathed seven years ago when he was still a quick-witted battle rapper, or slowly honing his production chops, a decidedly unglamorous calling. This summer, he wrote a letter to Afeni Shakur, 2Pac's mother, asking permission to take primary control of the next posthumous Pac album. He produced 13 of the 16 tracks on Loyal to the Game, due this month, and the pairing is fitting: Em's beats often sound like death marches, and Pac was forever prophesying his own end.
These are the signs of a man given to abnegation. He doesn't want to conquer rap again. Rather, he wants to become part of its fabric, to become unremarkable. And to do that, he has to lay waste to the legacy that he's made. So is Encore his retirement album, then? Not exactly. "I got unfinished business with rap music right now," he said on TRL two weeks ago. But despite the megalomania displayed on tracks like the anti-Bush "Mosh," it may be some time before the old Slim Shady comes out for a spin. On Encore's closing skit, and in the accompanying album artwork, he opens fire on his audience before turning the gun on himself. Biggie ended Ready to Diewith his own death, but it was crucial to the album's narrative. Jay-Z had himself killed in the video for "99 Problems"a metaphor for the death of Jay-Z and the rebirth of Shawn Carterand that's a better analogue for Eminem's strategy. After 77 minutes of Encore's dizzy befuddling, the gunshots serve as notice not to get too close. For Em, the opportunity to ebb into relative quiet is too good to pass up. Parse all you want, he's saying. There's nothing to see, or hear, here.
Jon Caramanica has written about popular music forThe New York Times,Rolling Stone, and other publications. He is working on a social history of rap music.