Eminem's angry, profane, nihilistic, and undeniably pop-savvy Slim Shady LP made him a huge star, gave him money, power, and influence, and made him a reluctant teen idol. That last side effect helps explain why his follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP, is angry, profane, and nihilistic enough to scare the shit out of most of his audience. The chip on Eminem's shoulder is even bigger this time out, and at times the album sags under the weight of its desire to shock. Eminem clearly wants to lose his pop-star image, if not his pop-star sales, but his tactics of choice—insulting the teen-friendly acts with whom he shares Total Request Live airtime and engaging in near-constant gay-bashing—feel as calculated and empty as any Bloodhound Gang bonus track. It's one thing to be hateful; it's another to do so in such an arbitrary, insincere way. The defensive stance Eminem assumes throughout Mathers rings just as false, as it's hard to take his sociopath-without-a-cause persona seriously when he's defensively making unconvincing excuses. That said, Mathers is frequently brilliant and unique, if extremely flawed. Eminem remains a rapper with few peers, with a nearly flawless delivery and a devastating sense of humor directed as much at himself as anyone else. "The Real Slim Shady" and "B**** Please II" are sonic sequels that actually improve on their predecessors, while "Stan" is a surprisingly moving, empathetic response to a distraught fan that transcends shock value. Part of what's missing from Mathers is the working-class despair and futility Eminem brought to Shady's "Rock Bottom" ("Stan" comes closest), but at its best, it partially compensates with a broader worldview and an abundance of pitch-black humor. Some songs just don't work—the overbearing "Kim" is the most egregious example—but Mathers is a lot like the kind of album Eminem's idol 2Pac made: messy, uneven, self-pitying, fatalistic, self-indulgent, and contradictory, but mesmerizing anyway.

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