Encore

Supposedly, the mainstream is where you go under and "maturity" means one foot in the grave. So the success of 8 Mile and its single "Lose Yourself" put Eminem in a bind. How and whether he'd come through was impossible to say, and the opening sallies from Encore were inconclusive. Would the dance-music dis "Just Lose It" lead us to an album as retrograde as its MJ-mocking video? Or was that a feint designed to double the wallop of "Mosh," which signaled a Marshall Mathers gone political — too late to help his candidate, but, be real, the Muse doesn't follow a schedule.

The answer, self-evident in retrospect, is none of the above. Encore isn't as astonishing as The Marshall Mathers LP. Few albums by anyone ever will be. But in the time-honored manner of mature work, it showcases a phenomenally gifted musician and lyricist doing all the things he does best. Sometimes there are new twists, sometimes not, but that's not decisive, because the music never feels old. Crucially, Encore is funnier than The Eminem Show, avoiding the Rock Star Agonistes posturing he seemed to be slipping into. Sure it's really mature, as when the Martika-sampling "Like Toy Soldiers" renounces battle rhyming and its deadly consequences, or "Yellow Brick Road" apologizes straightforwardly ("I was wrong," to be precise) for using the word nigger on a basement tape half a lifetime ago. But how many competing thirty-two-year-olds can still milk laughs and beats from belches, farts, vomiting and diarrhea?

A conceptual leap would have been nice: Now more than ever, pop needs new leaders. But in a genre forever suspected of running out of ideas, new tricks ain't nothing. There are fresh vocal cadences — here even faster, there more staccato, and does he know that parts of "Yellow Brick Road" recall the Randy Newman of "I Love L.A."? If the keyboard chord that shores up Martika is corny, the snare drum is dead obvious and right-on. The complex rhymes get seriously decentered: "money"/"the tree," for instance, or "birthday"/"first place." The absurdist "Rain Man" mocks homophobia. Most impressive of all, here's how the Heart-not-Beyonce-sampling "Crazy in Love" describes his inescapable Kim: "You are the ink to my paper/What my pen is to my pad/The moral, the very fiber, the whole substance of my rap."

Get over her, you want to say. You're thirty-two. But can you even imagine an Eminem song using such language — much less meaning it, and making it sing?