Eminem took a hiatus after the release of his first motion picture, 8 Mile, in late 2002, but it never seemed like he went away. Part of that is the nature of celebrity culture, where every star cycles through gossip columns regardless of whether they have a project in the stores or theaters, and part of it is that Marshall Mathers kept busy, producing records by his protégés D12, Obie Trice, and 50 Cent -- all hit albums -- with the latter turning into the biggest new hip-hop star of 2003. All this activity tended to obscure the fact that Eminem hadn't released a full-length album of new material since The Eminem Show in early summer 2002, and that two and a half years separated that album and its highly anticipated sequel, Encore. As the title suggests, Encore is a companion piece to The Eminem Show the way that The Marshall Mathers LP mirrored The Slim Shady LP, offering a different spin on familiar subjects. Where his first two records dealt primarily with personas and characters, his second two records deal with what those personas have wrought, which tends to be intrinsically less interesting than the characters themselves, since it's dissecting the aftermath instead of causing the drama. On The Eminem Show that kind of self-analysis was perfectly acceptable, since Eminem was on the top of his game as both a lyricist and rapper; his insights were vibrant and his music was urgent. Unfortunately, Encore is not the flipside of The Eminem Show as much as it is its negative image, where everything that was a strength has been turned into a handicap this time around. Musically, Show didn't innovate, but it didn't need to: Eminem and his mentor, Dr. Dre, had achieved cruising altitude, and even if they weren't offering much that was new, the music sounded fresh and alive. Here, the music is staid and spartan, built on simple unadorned beats and keyboard loops. While some songs use this sound to its advantage and a few others break free -- "Yellow Brick Road" is a tense, cinematic production -- the overall effect of these stark, black-and-white productions it to make Encore seem hermetically sealed, to make Eminem sound isolated from the outside world. This impression is only enhanced by Em's choice of lyrical subjects throughout the album. Instead of documenting his life, or the shifts in his psyche, he's decided to chronicle what's happened to him over the past the two years and refute every charge that's made it into the papers. This is quite a bit different than his earlier albums, when he embellished and exaggerated his life, when his relationship with his estranged wife, Kim, turned into an outlaw ballad, when his frenetic insults, cheap shots, and celeb baiting had a surreal, hilarious impact. Here, Eminem is plainspoken and literal, intent on refuting every critic from Benzino at The Source to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who gets an entire song ("Ass Like That") devoted to him. It's a bizarre move that seems all the more humorless when you realize that the loosest, funniest song -- the first single, "Just Lose It" -- is a sideswipe at Michael Jackson, the easiest target Em has yet hit. And that's the major problem with Encore: it sounds as if Eminem is coasting, resting on his laurels, and never pushing himself into interesting territory. Since he's a talented artist, there are moments scattered across the record that do work, whether it's full songs or flights of phrase in otherwise limp tracks, and that's enough to make it worth a spin, but Encore never resonates the way his first three endlessly fascinating albums do.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2