On the cover of last year’s The Slim Shady LP, Eminem stood beneath a hallucinatory full moon with his baby daughter, and the legs of a body (Kim, his freshly murdered girlfriend and the baby’s mother, according to ”’97 Bonnie and Clyde”) protruding from his car trunk. The cover of his second set, The Marshall Mathers LP, shows the 26-year-old blond rapper huddled beneath a loading dock, an empty pill vial and booze bottle at his feet, looking like a dysfunctional Little Rascal.

Easy to read, right? The debut: a violent fantasy, the acting-out of a persona. The follow-up: the vulnerable artist unmasked.

Nothing’s so simple in the world of Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady, an artist who, among other things, has turned rap’s preoccupation with ”realness” into what one critic dubbed Jerry Springer: The Musical. In the aftermath of Slim Shady, he married the girlfriend he imagined killing, while his mother, immortalized in his hit single ”My Name Is” (”I just found out my Mom does more dope than I do”), sued him for $10 million for defamation of character; the case is still pending. And so the wizard of id kicks off his latest with ”Kill You,” a little ditty about wanting to rape his mom, confiding to her and any woman who happens along: ”You ain’t nothin’ but a slut to me/Bitch I’m’a kill you.”

Like much of Mathers (not to mention Slim Shady), ”Kill You” is so noxious, so bone-deep offensive, you want to storm the barricades outside Interscope Records alongside Tipper Gore. But as the rapper spins virtuoso rhymes about being a fatherless kid, about dreams haunted by ”ladies’ screams,” about drugs and shrinks and imagining himself ”another rapper dead,” you pause. As he notes the irony of magazines trumpeting his mother-raping self on their covers, you ponder. And as he croons the chorus ”Shady/Will f — — —ing kill you,” you laugh, check yourself, then laugh again. And this is just the first song.

The Marshall Mathers LP is indefensible and critic-proof, hypocritical and heartbreaking, unlistenable and undeniable; it’s a disposable shock-rap session, and the first great pop record of the 21st century. It plays to a culture obsessed with celebrity gossip and talk-show voyeurism at the same time it rails against that culture. It is, one predicts, going to sell like penny lemonade on a hot day.

On Slim Shady, Eminem got mileage from raps about impregnating Spice Girls and assaulting Pamela Anderson. But Mathers was nobody then. Now, his star-studded battle rhymes pack double the frisson. Celebs dissed on Mathers include Christina Aguilera (she considered suing Mathers over the salacious mention in the single ”The Real Slim Shady”), Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Billboard editor in chief Timothy White (a harsh Eminem critic), and Detroit rappers Insane Clown Posse (who now rival Vanilla Ice as the most ridiculed rap act ever). There’s also the bit where Mathers tells Sean ”Puffy” Combs about wanting to have unprotected sex with Jennifer Lopez. Puff has already issued a press release, broadcast on MTV, saying the two rappers talked about it and it’s, y’know, cool. The disses, the dutiful media response: They are both part of the same self-reflexive, high-yield show.

But words are weapons, and when he’s not denying his culpability as a role model (which he does ad nauseum here), Eminem proves himself a peerless rap poet with a profound understanding of the power of language. ”Stan,” an epistolary exchange between the artist and a dangerously obsessive fan, may be the most moving song about star worship ever recorded. And ”Kim,” a prequel to ”’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” is a shout-rapped enactment of domestic violence so real it chills.

Indeed, ”Stan” and ”Kim” blaze significant new ground for rap. ”I’m Back” pointedly interrogates his own success (”Became a commodity/’Cause I’m W-H-I-T-E”). And Dr. Dre’s production on Mathers refines the state of the art in funky, minimalist hip-hop beatmaking. But like rifling through cable channels with your thumb on the remote, it’s tough to appreciate the pearls amidst the swine. For many, the bilious spew of ”bitches,” ”sluts,” and ”faggots” will render the record’s achievements invisible and irrelevent — despite Mathers’ disingenuous public disclaimers that he doesn’t have a problem with women and doesn’t hate gay people.

In the end, it’s impossible to separate the art from the ugliness, the hilarity from the viciousness, or the ”realness” from the calculation. The Marshall Mathers LP is a fun-house mirror held up to an artist’s pain, anger, and selfish ambition, as well as to the three-ring media circus in which we live. And it’s beyond one-shot grading. Media savvy: A+ Moral responsibility: D+ Overall artistry: A-

The Marshall Mathers LP
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