Chronicling Eminem's five-year career has been a little like watching someone go through court-ordered therapy.
When we first met the patient in 1999 on "The Slim Shady LP," he was an unrepentant, smart-aleck punk who spewed vile and shocking raps that hinted at darker, unresolved issues. A year later, "The Marshall Mathers LP" showed the patient making progress in addressing those underlying problems - drug use, a destructive relationship with his mother and wife, and homophobia - but still spiraling out of control. Then 2002's "The Eminem Show" finally featured our patient confronting his painful demons - and demonstrating a willingness to move on.
Though the soap opera of Eminem's life has been interesting enough, what's kept us coming back for updates were his deliciously demented rhymes that alternated between Howard Stern-like humor to Howard Hughes-like despair. Now that he's almost approached sanity, will we still be as entertained?
The answer is as schizophrenic as his new album, "Encore." Though it does provide some of the warped wit and juvenile humor that's made us laugh and wince over the years, it also features a lot of pondering - introspective soliloquies that resemble an off-Broadway monologue instead of an irreverent class clown.
"Father please forgive me for I know what I do, I just never had the chance to meet you, therefore I did not know that I would grow to be, my mother's evil seed and do these evil things," he warbles ominously on the first track, "Evil Deeds," where he once again complains about his absent father, troubled childhood and now even more troubled adulthood. Even he seems to know the shtick is old, and anticipates the groans from the listener with the line "woe is me, there goes poor Marshall again, whining about his millions and his mansion and his sorrow he's always drowning in."
But that doesn't stop the track from coming off like another celebrity whine.
Eminem also takes time out to explain the "n-word" controversy that never really threatened his career, but slightly tainted his street credibility. In "Yellow Brick Road," more of a one-sided interview than a rap, he does manage to apologize, but then offers a litany of excuses for his teenage racism - being picked on as the only white kid in an all-black neighborhood, the black girl who dissed him, the militant old-school rap group X-Clan. But anyone who followed that whole saga already got that explanation in XXL magazine. Why rehash it, particularly with surprisingly average rhymes?
Then there's the maudlin "Like Toy Soldiers," in which Eminem agonizes over the 50 Cent-Ja Rule beef he was pulled into last year. After spending so much time on mixtapes carving up Ja Rule, it seems a little strange to hear him now worry about the damage it may have done to the rap community. And it may be a little unsettling to Eminem fans to hear him sound so contrite - "Even though the battle was won, I feel like we lost it, I spent so much energy on it, honestly I'm exhausted."
After all, the old Eminem took delight in flipping off people - why is he sorry about it now? It makes you feel as if your favorite fighter has gotten a bit soft.
That's when the album reveals its split personality. "Mosh" is an angry attack on President Bush, which sounds a little dated postelection but is still a fierce political statement most other artists would be too fearful to make.
Eminem's obsession with ex-wife Kim continues, too. There's the self-explanatory rant "Puke," but also "Crazy in Love," in which he breaks down why he's still obsessed with her. Even better is the mellow "Mockingbird," Eminem's love letter to daughter Hailie, where he paints a more three-dimensional portrait of Kim - the struggling mother overcome by poverty, relationship problems and substance abuse: "... Papa was a rolling stone, mama developed a habit, it happened too fast for either one of us to grab it."
Still, the most entertaining tracks on the album are the ones where he's less cerebral and more comedic. Fans of "Just Lose It," will be happy to know there are more Michael Jackson digs for the Gloved One to have seizures over. There's also the wildly silly "Big Weenie," and "... Like That," a tribute to Beyonce-like booties that also features his hilarious imitation of one-time Eminem nemesis Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (yes, in the rap world, puppets can spark feuds too).
It's these tracks that reveal why this patient has transfixed for so long: it's not the Jerry Springer-like content, but the flourishes of genius neatly disguised in sardonic rhymes, angry rants and shocking, yet thought-provoking prose. But those qualities seem to ebb the more Eminem drifts towards Oprah-style normalcy. Here's hoping he never quite reaches it.