The Eminem Show

With The Eminem Show, Eminem just may have made the best rap-rock album in history. And that's not only because he reworks Aerosmith's "Dream On," on "Sing for the Moment." The Eminem Show is a hybrid theory of Jay-Z's hyperconfident The Blueprint, Staind's pained Dysfunction and Tupac's anti-hero masterpiece All Eyez On Me. The Eminem Show has the self-assurance of an artist at the top of his game and the game, the understanding that the music world is hanging on his every word and the willingness to shock even the most jaded ears.

Appropriately enough for a man closing in on thirty, The Eminem Show finds Eminem more mature and focused, if not kinder and gentler. "Without Me" — like his "The Real Slim Shady," the leadoff single from 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP — is a fun-loving, barb-laden romp on which he flits from one topic to the next like a bumblebee with ADD. But Em isn't saying things just to get you mad here. This time he's rapping because the world has pissed him off, not the other way around. "If y'all leave me alone, this wouldn't be my M.O.," he says on "My Dad's Gone Crazy."

On The Eminem Show, Eminem is no longer pulling the race card just for laughs. "I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley," he raps. "To do black music so selfishly/And use it to get myself wealthy." He's being a little harsh on himself: After all, the only white folks really doing white music are strumming harps and blowing bagpipes. But as always, Em's most potent weapon is his ability to counter his critics by accepting his vulnerabilities and turning them into song fodder.

Em produced or co-produced most of the album, and he's quickly becoming an expert beatmaker. Every track has some sort of melodic edge; songs such as "White America" and "Cleanin Out My Closet" feature electric-guitar rhythms fraternizing with hip-hop-sensible drum patterns. "Soldier" and " 'Till I Collapse" are all paranoid horror-movie instrumentation bottomed with arena-rock grandeur. He's learned so much so well as a producer that Dr. Dre's three contributions ("Business," "Say What You Say," "My Dad's Gone Crazy") are hard to pick out without production credits.

On the rock-fueled "White America," he confesses that "if I was black, I woulda sold half." But even as he remains acutely aware of his position as a big-time white rapper, Eminem fully enters the fray of mainstream hip-hop on The Eminem Show. He's moved on from dissing Everlast and Britney Spears and is unafraid to take on credible black MCs now, dissing Canibus on "Square Dance" and egging on Dr. Dre against Jermaine Dupri on "Say What You Say." On "Business," Em names himself the gatekeeper of hip-hop and obliquely claims to be the best rapper alive: "The flow's too wet/Nobody close to it/Nobody says it, but everybody knows the shit." His way with words and his sheer honesty can make topics that would otherwise seem so last week sound new. "Say Goodbye Hollywood" is the standard mo' money, mo' problems fare given new life; "Drips" is hip-hop's most poignant visit to the STD clinic since Ice Cube's 1991 song "Look Who's Burnin'."

Predictably, the three women in Eminem's life figure big on The Eminem Show. His divorce from Kim Mathers fuels the slow Southern bounce of the hypermisogynist "Superman," and his relationship with his estranged mother creates "Cleanin Out My Closet," possibly the record's most powerful moment. Amid a list of atrocities and venomous threats, he shows glimmers of remorse before delving back into unchecked anger, much as he did on 2000's "Kim." "See, what hurts me the most is you won't admit you was wrong," he raps before blasting, "but how dare you try to take what you didn't help me to get?/You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin' burn in hell for this shit."

Em's love for his daughter, Hailie, produces his singing debut, the tender "Hailie's Song." The tune's sweet message is stronger than the music, as Em reaches for notes that don't exist. A more effective moment comes when Hailie herself shows up to kick-start the chorus of the ridiculously catchy "My Dad's Gone Crazy." It's a guilty pleasure, knowing that Hailie's participation in the song is probably going to earn her a couple of years of therapy: The song begins with Hailie walking in on her dad as he inhales lines of coke.

As unlikely a role model as Em is, he has decided to take on the U.S. government — more proof, during this era of post-9/11 patriotism, that he truly follows his own course. On "White America," Em threatens to march on Capitol Hill, urinate on the White House grass and burn the star-spangled banner, and he attacks current and former vice-presidential wives Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore. On "Square Dance," he announces, "Yeah, the man's back/With a plan to ambush this Bush administration/Mush the Senate's face in/Push this generation of kids to stand and fight/For the right to say something you might not like." Finally, in his own scattered way, in his own mind, at least, Eminem is fighting for something a little bigger than himself. The Eminem Show makes it clear that Mr. Just-Don't-Give-a-Fuck still won't leave. He can't leave rap alone. The game needs him.