When Eminem crossed over to pop, he freaked out. But when Kid Rock crossed over, he just grinned, threw up a middle finger and kept going, crossing right through the mainstream and coming out the other side. He embraced the "White America" that Eminem scorned, conjuring up a fantasy of backwoods life that looked a lot like his fantasy of ghetto life: guns, drugs and lots of fucking.
There was the smash Devil Without a Cause, the cash-in compilation History of Rock and then Cocky, a rather uninspired album that became a late-breaking success because of the hit single "Picture," with Sheryl Crow, a thug-love duet for Nascar fans that stayed on the country charts for months.
By now, Kid Rock's shtick should be wearing thin. But his Kid Rock is a monster: raucous and clever and unpredictable. It's one of the best hard-rock CDs you'll hear this year, carrying on the shitkicking tradition of Hank Williams Jr., ZZ Top, Guns n' Roses and Bad Company.
They're all here: Williams shows up to help sing "Cadillac Pussy." ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons adds vocals to "Hillbilly Stomp," a country-funk hybrid that evokes Parliament's "Little Old Country Boy." And "Run Off to L.A.," another Crow collaboration, recycles Axl Rose: "They say all we need is just a little patience/But what do you do when your woman's too high-maintenance?" As for Bad Company, the album's first single is a cover of "Feel Like Makin' Love."
Like Eminem, Kid Rock is a shrewd cultural politician, always stopping just short of claiming to be something he isn't. "I Am" includes a risible declaration of Southern pride: "I am Georgia, I am Memphis, Tennessee." But there's a twist: "I am everything that Hollywood wants to be." And he's also Boston and Florida and both Dakotas — no more or less real, in other words, than his audience.
You can hear this audience reflected in the music, a mishmash of dusty cowboy songs and riff-rock rants and piano ballads. It's almost all convincing (even the occasional raps), thanks in large part to the underrated Twisted Brown Trucker Band, especially guitarist Kenny Olson, who gives Kid Rock the snarling, sinuous riffs he needs.
Mainly, though, this album is proof that Kid Rock knows what he's doing. He is whatever he says he is: a coke-sniffing star and a hardworking "redneck," but also a "single father, part-time mother." The album includes the obligatory too-much-touring ballad, "Cold and Empty," which doubles as a prom song and triples as a tribute to the fans who make his populism credible. "It's the life I love," he sings, "but it's you I can't live without."