In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Eminem’s Encore, which went to No. 1 on November 27, 2004, where it stayed for two weeks.

2014 was the first year that outrage about Eminem overshadowed the actual Eminem album. Music fans heard the hubbub over the Ray Rice/Lana Del Rey line on that Shady XV freestyle and about the “Vegas”’ rape lyric against Iggy Azalea—one of the few things that got people on Azalea’s side. They didn’t hear so much about Shady XV, and that’s because it’s a bad album. It’s not that Eminem has forgotten how to rap; that raison d’etre rarely shows itself. Eminem is a capable rapper, so hearing him rap for the sake of dazzling with verbal gymnastics just isn’t compelling. His post-hiatus output has been shaky at best, but recently it’s become apparent there’s little else to talk about, hollowing out the words flung at triple time.

That was never Eminem’s problem, not even on Encore. It’s the album that’s consistently ranked near the bottom of his catalog, which is a fair claim since it marked the end of a run that included three classic albums of peak cultural significance. No one can argue Encore is a classic; it’s sloppy, and you don’t need Eminem’s mea culpa to acknowledge this. But it is significant.

The Slim Shady LP crafted a persona, The Marshall Mathers LP put Marshall Mathers the person parallel to the persona to visceral effect, and The Eminem Show—the most clear-eyed of the bunch—has the human Eminem front and center. Beneath the multi-dimensional trio lies the underdog that fully realizes itself in the career manifesto “Lose Yourself.”

The first three albums follow Eminem’s climb to the top and the invective taken and given at the position. Encore wonders if there’s shit-else to do there. In place of the acerbity of his preceding, listeners get a project that increasingly sounds loopier and absurd as it progresses. It makes sense this is coming from an artist who’s about to face a half-decade of drug addiction and personal tragedy. The reverence is in the rise; the comedy rests in the unforeseen downfall—as is typical in pop culture.

The value in that frayed focus isn’t found solely in the context, but also in the contents. Encore is not particularly copacetic; “Just Lose It” and “Ass Like It” back to back is still unpleasant. Many cuts act like funhouse mirrors to the emotional weight of the first half. Take, for instance, how “Like Toy Soldiers” and “Big Weenie” act in the same body of work. One is a sober look at beef and its potentially violent consequences. The other has the line, “Now take my weenie out of your mouth,” and it’s directed at the same antagonist (Benzino) the former addresses. It’s incongruent on paper, but Encore’s satire is double-edged, aiming at both Eminem and the world at large. That includes subjects with lethal consequences. Elsewhere, there’s the contradiction of “My 1st Single” and “Never Enough” featuring heavy-hitters 50 Cent and Nate Dogg. The latter is a laser sharp, just-because evisceration by hip-hop’s then deadliest duo; on the former, the threats are moot: “Shady’s the label, Aftermath is the stable (cue horse sound) / That the horses come out of (scratches) of course we’re about to stir up.” The jokes aren’t just limited to Encore. Ex-wife Kim is Eminem’s career-long muse, and here we get “Puke,” a track that trades Eminem’s normal vitriol for a brattish haphazardness that comes across more self-depreciative.

The album-closing “Encore / Curtains Down” isn’t as farcical, but the clumsiness is still there. Part of the hook—“Cause I don’t ever wanna leave the game without / at least saying goodbye”—is delivered with the same conviction of a drunken man who doesn’t know when the night is over, aimlessly in search of the next bar. While Eminem’s recent work does carry that sense of aimlessness, Encore propels itself on how self-aware it is of that sort of oblivion. It’s almost like he’s asking, “Is there anywhere to go from here?,” a question that would pop up for Eminem in the months ahead. If his first three albums work on building the mythos of a superstar, Encore is important in how it completes the arc—from rise of an icon to the impending disintegration. Over the course of its runtime, Encore tells the story of an artist whose greatness gets obfuscated by surrounding anxieties and encroaching turmoil. In context, as Slim Shady “kills” himself along with fans in the closing sketch, it’s a final satirical middle finger to the culture of which he was once the fulcrum.

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