Label: Aftermath/Interscope/Web
Producers: Dr. Dre, Eminem, Luis Resto, Mark Batson, Mike Elizondo
Features: 50 Cent, Nate Dogg, D12, Dr. Dre, Stat Quo 
Sales: 5x Platinum
This is just a weird album.

Riding the wave of nearly universal acclaim that began with the conciliatory The Eminem Show and peaked in the one-two punch of the 8 Mile Soundtrack and the part he played in unleashing 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin' on the world, Eminem faced some interesting new expectations during the lead-up to his fifth album. There was talk on the street that he would deliver a conventional hip-hop classic.

Despite adhering rigidly to certain cultural conventions of hip-hop, Eminem’s actual output had always lived on the fringes of the genre. He likes a very particular kind of musically lush, rhythmically stiff beat. And his emotional pendulum has always swung violently from unabashed goofiness to an extreme sort of self-seriousness and rage, rarely landing in hip-hop’s cooler, more nonchalant sweet spot. But in 2004, he was the undisputed king of mainstream rap—with the beefs under his belt to prove it—and his subject matter and tone on both of the aforementioned album’s suggested a more conservative direction.

Whoa, were we wrong!

What he delivered with Encore is a sprawling mess of schitzophrenic awesomeness. The album starts quite straight-forwardly, tackling expected autobiographical business in short order. From “Evil Deeds” to “Never Enough” to “Toy Soldiers” to “Yellow Brick Road” to “Mosh,” Em addresses all the hot topics of family, rap beef, politics and, perhaps most pressing, his regrettable use of the word “nigger” as a teenager. Cool, thanks for clearing all that up.

But that’s where things start to get zany!

 

The next six songs are just a totally self-indulgent bizarre ride to the far side of… I don’t even know what. Whether it’s his scathing singing freestyle ode to ex-wife Kim Mathers, “Puke,” or the comical rebuke of Benzino, “Big Weenie,” or the club banger parody “Ass Like That,” listening to it, you get the sense that you’re witnessing the biggest artist in the world baiting his fan base to balk.

 

The next six songs are just a totally self-indulgent bizarre ride to the far side of… I don’t even know what. Whether it’s his scathing singing freestyle ode to ex-wife Kim Mathers, “Puke,” or the comical rebuke of Benzino, “Big Weenie,” or the club banger parody “Ass Like That,” listening to it, you get the sense that you’re witnessing the biggest artist in the world baiting his fan base to balk. Eminem had always skated close to Weird-Al novelty territory—stuff like “Mushroom Song.” But when he sings “poo-poo, ca-ca” on “My First Single,” it’s maybe the first time in his career that you actually believe that he just doesn’t give a fuck. And then there’s the juvenile stream-of-conscious epic “Rain Man.” Can’t forget that one. The most meandering, strange and "audience-less" song of his entire career (maybe the career of any artist of his stature?) this is definitely not a song for you or me. But the real question is if it’s even for him. Then again, this is an enigmatic fellow we're talking about. This might be the most "Marshall" music ever.

Things sober up towards the end, and Em gets back inside the box with the more traditional “Spend Some Time,” “Mockingbird,” and “Encore.” But even that material can’t shake off the surreal feeling of, “Did the middle of that album actually happen? Did Eminem, world famous superstar, really just rap an entire conversation with Dre debating what constitutes a homosexual act? Was that real?”

Understandably, many fans found Encore to be a real head scratcher. But that’s exactly the point, and that's what makes it so great. Under the weight of expectation Eminem bucked and delivered this amazing exercise in absolute freedom. Given carte blanche to create—so many miles into the stratosphere of success that literally anything he made was gauranteed to sell millions—this inscrutable, genius oddball made a manic, bipolar masterpiece. —Noah Callahan-Bever