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Eminem

The Eminem Show (Interscope)

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Have you ever been hated or discriminated against? Eminem inquires early into his third disc, disingenuously courting empathy from the groups he's tormented in the past. I have, he volunteers. I've been protested and demonstrated against. Using several novel strategies to establish absence of malice, Eminem presents himself as contrite and innocuous. His real-life misstep -- assaulting a club bouncer with an unloaded gun -- seems relatively mild compared with the charges of child molestation (R. Kelly, South Park Mexican), attempted murder (C-Murder) and grotesque cannibalism (Big Lurch) that have recently been leveled against his peers. Yet he apologizes profusely for his offense, meticulously contextualizing the incident to frame his violent reaction as inevitable and restrained. Working in a genre in which the hard advance and the soft are lost, Eminem has flipped the script, creating a concept album about being harmless.

The Show's opening gambit, "White America," shares its crunchy Goth-hop feel and menacing cadence with "The Way I Am," his let-me-be protest from 2000's Marshall Mathers Album. But the sequel digs deeper, exploring how his race, once a hindrance to his progress in the rap game, now helps him reach a wider audience. My skin, is it starting to work to my benefit now? he ponders incredulously, realizing that his pastiness granted him access to teen magazines and suburban fans. Do the math/If I was black, I would've sold half, he calculates. He's dealt with such self-deprecating equations before, but he's never deconstructed his success so thoroughly or defined his appeal so realistically. At the tune's end, he deadpans, I'm just kiddin' America/You know I love you, echoing the reassurance he offered women at the close of Mathers' harrowing "Kill You." But this time, there's no need for the gesture. He's merely speaking the hard truth, an act he previously confused with pointing out the obvious.

On Show, there's little time for easy targets. He does tastelessly namedrop a murder victim (How can one Chandra be so Levy?), but he sidesteps plenty of potential bull's-eyes. Most significantly, he makes no move to distance himself from duet partner Elton John for the benefit of his macho fanbase, as Fred Durst did after sharing the stage with Christina Aguilera. He mentions the coupling only to describe how me and Elton played career Russian roulette, an apt and amusing summary of the stunt. Even when provoked, Eminem reacts calmly. Battle rapper Canibus constructed an entire record around the premise that Mathers' wayward fan Stan survived his crash and became an MC; Eminem fires back a simple warning shot, branding him Can-a-bitch. He's still simmering about his lawsuit-happy mother and allegedly unfaithful ex-wife, but instead of murdering them on wax, he skewers them in song. His mom receives a brilliantly warped reworking of Outkast's "Ms. Jackson," on which he sings I'm sorry, Mama/I never meant to make you cry in a voice that drips with venom. Ex-wife Kim gets off with a few unflattering but nonthreatening mentions. Even Em's obligatory sex-gone-wrong bombs contain unexpected subtexts: "Superman," for all its anthrax on a Tampax hostility, mostly addresses his own shortcomings in relationships.

Musically, Eminem excels as always. Crafting most of the beats himself, he melds live bass, guitar and keyboards into potent low-key hooks that establish melody while ceding the spotlight to his complex two-rhymes-in-every-line lyrical schemes. "Without Me" pounds like a dance remix of last year's infectious D-12 single "Purple Pills"; "Business," Dr. Dre's standout contribution, pulses with bouncy P-funk flair; "Till I Collapse" parades subtle instrumentation and a buttery Nate Dogg cameo over a pounding "We Will Rock You"-style handclap foundation.

For one track, Eminem takes a break from expressing exasperation and prosecuting himself to tout the likely catalyst for his newfound focus: his daughter, Hailie Jade. I can't sing, he prefaces, but I feel like singing/I'm happy. With that, he starts crooning reasonably tunefully. It's not his most agreeable track -- new-jack R&B doesn't really become him -- or his most clever lyrical offering. In fact, it's uncharacteristically trite (I see my baby/Suddenly I'm not crazy/It all makes sense when I look into her eyes), but "Hailie's Song" accomplishes easily what the rest of the album works so hard to do. It humanizes the monster.

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