Motor Suburb Madhouse

Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP

When we last met him he was getting revenge on bullies, needing Tylenol PM to sleep, slicing up Dad in a dream, complaining about stabbing victims bleeding all over his rug, making the world fellate him without a condom on, winning a million bucks then robbing armored trucks, blaming himself for somebody's psilocybin OD ("We need an ambulance!/There's a girl upstairs talking to plants!"), and giving another girl herpes (which later in the album he can't decide whether he has) in exchange for syphilis. But these were all really Slim Shady, of course, who is of course a cartoon, so the born-brain-damaged/one-sandwich-short-of-a-picnic-basket slapstick mostly came off cute—not terribly more authentic in its nastiness than, say, Alice Cooper in "No More Mr. Nice Guy" or Wile E. Coyote shopping for bombs at Acme. Puts on a bulletproof vest, ties himself to the bed, shoots himself in the head. The first time I heard "My Name Is" on the radio reminded me of the first time I heard "Loser" by Beck, in that it felt like a wacky novelty song—a good one, but hardly something presaging a career anybody would remotely take seriously.

Eminem has since, though, proved responsible for the funniest not-a-motherfucking-role-model-(or am I?) disclaimers in pop history—stuff about how children shouldn't partake in the album with laces in their shoes, and Slim Shady is not responsible for their actions. "I try to be positive and keep it cool/Shoot up the playground and tell the kids to stay in school." Slim Shady gives Em the luxury of narrative distance. And he's constantly also portraying Greek choruses of peanut-gallery inhabitants criticizing Shady ("Stop the tape! The kid needs to be locked up!"), and nobody confuses those voices with Eminem, oddly enough. He laughs at his own audaciousness—all over his new album, he sets up an endlessly neurotic supply of trapdoors within trapdoors, turning-back-on-self techniques frequently more audacious than whatever audaciousness they're escaping him from. Tells us he's really just Marshall Mathers, a regular guy. Dippiest moment is when he suggests (in apparent seriousness) that it's more dangerous to let 12-year-old girls wear makeup than to let them listen to him. But that doesn't stop a couple brats in another song from breaking through his window and stealing his machine guns and trench coats.

Where The Slim Shady LP mainly comprised variations on "Glory Glory Hallelujah, Teacher Hit Me With A Ruler," Eminem's new set ranks with rock's most outlandish travails-of-stardom dissertations ever, setting themes that Kurt Cobain never quite pulled off toatmospherics that Tricky never quite pulled off. Or you could say it's all variations on "Positively Fourth Street," except when it's variations on "Hey Joe" or "It's Only Rock and Roll." Suicide right on the stage: Would you think the boy's headful of ideas was driving him insane? Eminem's always fantasizing about killing himself—"and I'll try it again/That's why I write songs where I die at the end." And on the new album, the catalyst is mainly his fans. But as with Kid Rock on Devil Without a Cause, there's a self-awareness and emotional complexity to The Marshall Mathers LP that Eminem previously seemed incapable of. He's "sick and tired of being admired," and he's got no patience for either the cocky Caucasians at rock and roll stations or the underground rappers labeling him a sellout 'cause he can't rap about being broke no more. He's fed up with your shit and does not give a fuck what you think, and if you're stupid enough to believe he'd really kill somebody, he says, well, maybe he'll just kill you. He dismisses his own audience as "fucking retards" who, upon purchasing his record, have hereby kissed his ass. His best new song, "Stan," consists of three obsessive letters from a stalking nutcase who thinks Slim Shady is a real person, and one uncharacteristically thoughtful Eminem missive back to him advising him to seek counseling. But (à la "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins, one of the letters points out) it's too late; the dork's already downed his fifth of vodka and driven into the lake with his girlfriend riding shotgun.

Not to say it's out of his system yet (his rap remake of Bob Seger's beautiful-loser-on-tour tour de force "Turn the Page" is due next year), but Kid Rock actually immortalized in verse the travails of stardom before he was a star, in "Only God Knows Why": "Guess that's the price you pay for being some big shot like I am." Easily one of this year's most irresistible radio singles, said backporch ballad comes closer to realizing what made the Allmans' "Ramblin' Man" or Skynyrd's "Am I Losin' " great than Wilco or the Jayhawks, say, ever could. Rhythmatized by the danciest hard-rock drummer (her name is Stefanie Eulinberg, by the way) since Steven Adler on Appetite for Destruction, Kid's eight-piece Twisted Brown Trucker Band regularly finds the funk at the heart of Southern rock that has eluded generations of jam bands. His "Welcome to the Jungle"/"Hotel California"/"Hollywood Nights"-style move-to-L.A. fantasy "Cowboy" rocks like Beck would if Becks could rock; his boast about living on "Matchbox 20 money" seems even goofier in the wake of Santana hiring smoothie Rob Thomas; his a cappella Fleetwood Mac basslines in "Wasting Time" (Devil's best dance song, now penciled in as its platform-shoed fifth single) are even funnier than the Backstreet Boys' a cappella basslines in "Larger Than Life"; his "Dust in the Wind" reference beats Enrique Iglesias's. And his alcohol fixation—bottles of Beck's, gallons of cognac, 18 Heinekens, Boone's Farm, shots of Jack, and his man Jim Beam, all to wash down the one-hitter puffs and New Orleans jumbo shrimp he loves so much—would stop anybody's 12-step program from keeping them clean.

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