To understand the Eminem phenomenon, think of the rapper less as a pop star than as a living reality TV show with a great soundtrack. He has all the characteristics of someone on “The Real World,” or “The Osbournes”: an acidic, antisocial personality, a dysfunctional family, and a vocabulary reliant on words of fewer than five letters.
The devilishly skilled, blond-and-blue-eyed rhymer has become even more interesting as his success (“The Marshall Mathers LP” is certified eight times platinum) has increased his problems. He’s been sued by his mom; arrested for allegedly pistol-whipping a friend of his now ex-wife, who later attempted suicide; and taken to task for homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. These often self-created troubles give Eminem the rubber-necking appeal of a highway pile-up.
His new album, “The Eminem Show,” arrives in stores today with a new controversy: Rampant bootlegging caused the release date to be bumped up a week.
The new set has a different tone than the last one. The “Mathers” album, which included the disturbing look into the psyche of a deranged fan, “Stan,” explored the boundaries between fiction and reality. Eminem became the classic unreliable narrator, forcing listeners to question the truthfulness of words: Did he really want to murder his wife? Did he truly hate gays and lesbians?
The ensuing debate demonstrated how artfully Eminem raised these questions. He was impossible to pin down. In this way, the album had a lot in common with the work of gay novelist Dennis Cooper, who frequently pens rape and murder fantasies in the first person.
“The Eminem Show” is a more straightforwardly personal effort. For much of the album, he deals with his problems — continued family dramas, legal woes, media scrutiny — head on. This directness causes him to modify his high-pitched Bugs Bunny-like rap style. On two of the most introspective cuts — the blistering “Cleaning Out My Closet,” about his estranged parents, and “Hailie’s Song,” a raw tribute to his daughter — he even sings. These tunes suggest that there’s a lot more to Eminem than just being an ironically detached prankster.
The lyrics on the album, while considerably less inflammatory than on “Mathers,” will again likely stir folks up. In addition to the juvenile homophobic and misogynistic taunts that can be found on most current rap albums, Eminem rhymes about Vice President Dick Cheney’s heart problems and even makes a tossed-off reference to the flights that hit the twin towers. What makes these lyrics and “Mather’s” jokes about the late Sonny Bono and paralyzed Christopher Reeve — so disturbing to some is that they buck folk superstitions about karma and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s no wonder Eminem is so popular with boundary-questioning teens.
Musically, the new album is his best yet, consistently crisp and funky but often accented with rock. Surprisingly much of it is self-produced; mentor Dr. Dre shows up for only three cuts. “Square Dance,” which Eminem produced, is one of his sharpest tunes ever. The unsteady beat, which dips and dives, pushes and pulls, underscores his lyrics about the uncertainty of life post-Sept. 11.
In the latest season of this tragi-comic drama, the production values have been upgraded and the main character has deepened. Tunes like that make “The Eminem Show” the pop equivalent of “must-see TV.”