Artist: EminemTitle: EncoreRating: 3 StarsReviewed by: Matt Barone

Without a doubt one of the game’s all-time grand lyricists, one of Eminem’s superior strengths throughout his illustrious career has been the uncanny ability to bring listeners into his turbulent psyche, one loaded with violent baby mama drama, parental neglect, and shameless insults. But on his fourth album, Encore (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope), it seems as if, at this point, Marshall Mathers has let the world too deep into his mind. While his microphone skills remain of top-shelf quality, the excitement of what crazy metaphor will emerge in his next bar feels more reserved. Over the course of 20 tracks, Eminem addresses his love for his daughter Hailie, the sea-saw of emotions surrounding his troubled wifey Kim, and pushes the buttons of high-profile celebrities; problem is, these are all areas extensively covered on his previous three releases.

At its best, though, Encore delivers some of Eminem’s finest work to date. Opening up with the dark reflections of “Evil Deeds,” Dr. Dre’s avant-garde bounce finds our host airing out grievances with a sped-up flow, only to call himself out with, “Whoa is me, there goes poor Marshall again whining about his millions, and his mansion, and his sorrow he’s always drowning in.” “Never Enough” brings it back to basics, with Eminem’s dizzying wordplay shining alongside a moody Nate Dogg hook and impressive 50 Cent verse, and on “Spend Some Time,” a subdued backdrop inspires entertaining, female-directed venom from guests Obie Trice, Stat Quo, and 50 .

Whenever Eminem opens the doors to his dramatic reality, like on past gems such as “Cleaning Out My Closet,” he is rivaled by very few rappers in the game. On “Yellow Brick Road,” he jumps into this mode to fully explain the infamous “racist” tape, using his self-produced violins and light percussion as a fitting soundtrack for honest revelations. The amazing storytelling continues on “Like Toy Soldiers,” where Eminem sheds bright light on his recent audio battles with Ja Rule and Benzino. Sporting one of his best instrumentals to date, complete with a militant drum pattern and haunting vocal samples, “Like Toy Soldiers” allows Em to drop the gavel on his beefs with the closing remarks, “Frankly, I’m sick of talking/ I’m not gonna let some one else’s coffin rest on my conscience.”

Unfortunately, once the politically-heated rants heard on “Mosh” conclude, Encore spirals off into head-scratching hit-or-miss territory. Dr. Dre’s creeping piano and string arrangement on “Rain Man” manages to draw attention away from Em’s puzzling Christopher Reeve discussion, but on the messy “Big Weenie,” a terribly corny Slim Shady styled hook and repetitive drums from Dre equal immediate usage of the Skip button. “Ass Like That,” despite being funnier than any rap song should be, still disappoints due to an utterly sophomoric songwriting approach (unnecessarily delivered in the voice of one-time Eminem enemy, and hand puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) for a lyrical giant like Em.

There in lies the main problem with Encore: an inconsistency in execution. While the title track “Encore” heavily bangs with a neck-snapping Dr. Dre concoction and effective pass-the-mic verses between Em and Dre, a song like the D12-assisted “One Shot 2 Shot” lacks any creativity and inspiration, making for a frustrating break in overall enjoyment not felt as strongly on any other Em record. Even on Encore’s weaker selections, Eminem’s verses blow away nearly all of his competition in flow and rhyme schemes, only raising the level of frustration with the album. If only he would have crafted more tracks in the genuine nature of “Like Toy Soldiers,” his latest could have continued his progression as a true great in Hip-hop’s legacy. While his credibility and worthiness of respect are still intact by the disc’s conclusion, disappointment is unavoidable. In the end, though, nobody is perfect, and Eminem’s slight stumble surely won’t be his downfall.