Photo by Jonathan Mannion

WHAT MAKES EMINEM SO INFURIATING AND BRILLIANT is the cutting self-awareness of his own pop phenomenon. You could pen volumes on the racial politics behind his stardom, but on The Eminem Show's “White America,” Em's already beaten you to the punch, rhyming “Let's do the math/If I was black/I would have only sold half” and laying down this incredible coup de grâce, “Look at these eyes/baby blue/baby just like yourself/If they were brown/Shady lose/Shady sits on the shelf.”

It's no wonder the rock-critic establishment jocks Em so hard, though he's guilty of the same moral turpitude that's earned black gangsta rappers condemnations. He'll dis Lynne Cheney and Moby, challenge Congress to kiss his ass, and still get suburban teens geeked off his music. For those alienated by hip-hop's black cultural cipher, Em's a familiar, accessible outlaw icon — Waylon Jennings in a FUBU track suit. Thus, it doesn't matter whether Em still espouses a virulent misogynistic streak or juvenile homophobia. He's a relentless rebel without a cause or a pause, anticipating criticism and launching pre-emptive strikes with equal parts defiance (“Soldier”) and martyrdom (“Say Goodbye Hollywood”), the Teflon-coated progeny of a generation raised on post-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush denial and deflection.

Em chews through words like a lawn mower, spitting them back out with dazzling agility and articulation. Like Jay Z or Nas, he can patter with deliberate, menacing intensity (“Square Dance”) or deliriously dribble off words like Ludacris (“Superman”). Beyond his flow, though, Eminem's grown into one of hip-hop's premier lyricists, gut-wrenchingly funny one moment (“My Dad's Gone Crazy”) or heart-wrenchingly dark the next (“Cleaning Out My Closet”). But if The Eminem Show is his most mature work (in style), it's also his most tedious. In a summer of attacking clones, The Eminem Show is another formulaic sequel, a syndicated rerun of The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP. “Without Me” is obviously the new “The Real Slim Shady,” itself an update of “My Name Is”; “Soldier” is “Criminal” redux; “When the Music Stops” featuring D12 could have been left off D12's recent Devils Night. With two years to move in new directions, Eminem sticks to the tried and true, taking listeners down the same road they've already twice traveled. Equally complicit is the listless production by Em and Dr. Dre. Like the album's lyrical themes, the beats are instantly familiar retreads from Em's previous albums. With the notable exception of “Without Me”'s impelling rhythm, most of the songs share the same slow lope, and though it works at times — “Square Dance”'s ominous stomp, or the steady, progressive stride on “When the Music Stops” — by album's end, it all feels like one long drone.

But the biggest shortcoming is still Eminem himself. There's a moment, as you listen to his undiluted vitriol for his mother on “Cleaning Out My Closet,” that evokes a memory of Marvin Gaye. As Em rails, “Remember when Ronnie died/and you said you wished it was me?/Well guess what?/I am dead/as dead to you as can be,” one might flash back to hearing Gaye expose similar raw nerves on his 1978 Here, My Dear, the album he cut as part of his divorce settlement from Anna Gordy. Both Em's and Gaye's songs function as confessionals so intense, they almost embarrass the listener with their intimacy. But whereas Gaye's album was a bittersweet soliloquy on the tragedies of love and loss, Eminem lacks Gaye's repentance and forgiveness, settling instead for self-righteous pissiness. On “The Kiss,” when he jokes about his well-publicized gun-assault charge involving his on-again, off-again wife, Kim, you realize that Eminem's disposition is not Here, My Dear but Here, Bitch, Go Fuck Yourself.

SO LONG AS HE CAN'T OR WON'T TRANSCEND THIS SELF-righteous attitude, Em will be bereft of any real humility, thus any real humanity — a frustrating hole in the soul. He's a delight to listen to for style, for his effortless skill as a lyricist. But as an artist who's supposed to be the maligned champion of the neglected, misunderstood masses, there's nothing particularly heroic about serving your fans a smarmy cocktail of limp, indignant fury and disingenuous self-loathing.

Maybe it is all a show, as the album's title suggests. Maybe Eminem is Marshall Mathers' way of getting over on all of us, a put-on designed to cajole and infuriate. If so, then The Eminem Show is a trap, too, an admission that Eminem really is a minstrel. Not of black music or culture, as he's often accused of, but of himself — a flat self-parody depleted of all meaning, relevance or redemption. Pop culture — as Em well knows — is filled with empty icons. So why would an artist of such powerful potential rush to join that plastic parade?

EMINEM | The Eminem Show | (Aftermath)

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