Eminem has been called lots of things during his reign as the most vital figure in American pop: vulgar, misogynistic, homophobic, evil. Who imagined we’d now be adding sensitive and humble?
In the most revealing track on “Encore,” the stirring, often nakedly personal album that is being rushed into release Friday, he devotes nearly six minutes to clarifying an ugly moment in his past -- a tape from his teenage years, full of slurs against African American women.
When news of the tape surfaced in January, Eminem, now 32, said he made it as an “angry, stupid kid” after breaking up with an African American girlfriend. His response seemed to satisfy fans and fellow rappers, and the issue faded.
But it didn’t disappear for the volatile rapper, who feels compelled to go into detail about his emotional state all those years ago in the new song “Yellow Brick Road.” In it he says, “I singled out a whole race and for that I apologize.”
This alone signals a change in Eminem. Previously, he just laughed defiantly when adults complained about his music, arguing that his audience understood it.
Eminem still finds lots of time in “Encore,” the year’s most anticipated CD, for the bravado and assault that have long fueled his artistry. But the most affecting moments are the ones in which he exhibits vulnerability and makes a thoughtful venture into politics.
In the tender “Mockingbird,” the Detroit-based rapper outlines his devotion to his daughter, Hailie. Against a restrained, almost hypnotic musical backdrop, Eminem tries to help the child make sense of a world in which her father is always on the run because of his career, and her mother, Kim, makes headlines with legal troubles, including a drug arrest last year.
Normally, much of Eminem’s lure as a rapper is in the speed and authority of his rapid-fire delivery, but he raps here with the gentleness of a man with his arms around his daughter: “I know it’s confusing to you/ Daddy’s always on the move/ Mama’s always on the news.”
Eminem’s music has often been part therapy session, part vivid storytelling, but he has rarely gotten as close to his emotional center as he does in the most memorable tracks on this album. They rank with his finest ever, including “Stan,” his chilling 2000 look at fan obsession, and “Lose Yourself,” the glorious declaration of self-affirmation from the 2002 film “8 Mile.”
The rapper also catches us off-guard with eloquent political reflections in “Mosh,” his equivalent of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” While Eminem’s rap doesn’t have the timelessness or literary aspirations of the Dylan song, it hits with the visceral charge and topical urgency of the best rap.
Lashing out at various social injustices, he leads a legion of young followers toward what appears to be the kind of violent rebellion one might expect in hard-core rock and rap. Instead, as the video for “Mosh” shows, their charge is to the voting booth.
This seriousness, however, doesn’t come at the cost of Eminem’s usual humor. “Just Lose It,” whose video made Michael Jackson cry foul, is the album’s hilarious slap at celebrity voyeurism, with Eminem himself a prominent target.
As the album title suggests, much of “Encore” (it could also be called “Postscript”) seems aimed at tying up loose ends from his three earlier studio collections and the “8 Mile” soundtrack, including some cautionary words about the sometimes violent feuding in the rap world.
But he and Dr. Dre, who split production duties on the album, pack key tracks with such fabulous, ear-catching hooks that fans may groove on the beats for weeks before they get around to actually paying attention to the themes. Count on it: This is the music we’ll be hearing booming out of car speakers all winter -- and beyond.
The album has a familiar shortcoming: Once again, Eminem is guilty of not knowing when to stop in the studio. At 77 minutes, the album feels bloated. If he had restrained himself to, say, 50 minutes, he could have left out moments of juvenile silliness and the further put-down of women that undercut some of the poignant reflection of “Yellow Brick Road” and “Mockingbird.”
In the few surplus moments, you get the sense of Eminem returning to time-tested elements that he thinks his fans will be expecting. But compromise is rare in Eminem’s work, which is remarkable for someone who has sold nearly 30 million albums in just five years in the U.S. alone.
His brilliance as a social observer and record maker have turned much of the early unease over his sometimes crude and jarring images into respect, as his nine Grammys make clear.
Despite all the public debate over Eminem’s struggles in earlier albums to chronicle the dark alienation of youth, the music was chiefly about trying to understand the conflicts in his own tormented background. In the best moments of “Encore,” his brave and penetrating eye sees those conflicts more clearly than ever.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org