Eminem may have substituted his real name for that of his Slim Shady alter ego in the album title this time, but that doesn't mean he has abandoned the foulmouthed humor, bratty defiance, ugly imagery and, yes, vivid imagination and raw talent that made last year's "The Slim Shady LP" a deserved blockbuster.
That means Eminem is likely to once more delight the 3 million fans who bought the first album--and continue to anger or alarm all those parents and record-biz insiders who decried the unapologetically aggressive sexual and violent nature of his themes.
If you want to build a defense for Eminem's controversial approach, you could say he's taking swipes at hypocrisy (he mentions President Clinton's sexual escapades twice) and point out that he acknowledges the consequences of some of the antisocial actions. Mainly, though, Eminem is simply exercising his creative impulses--putting on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence and just watching the fallout.
"The Real Slim Shady," the first single from the album, is a modest step to the mainstream--a fresh and funny, almost PG-rated swipe at everything from the Grammy Awards to shallow teen pop. But other tracks--such as "Kim," another savage look at a man's fury over domestic tensions--are dark and unsettling enough to make you want to enlarge the parental warning stickers on the album.
The creative advance over "The Slim Shady LP" is in the way Eminem has begun to weave more autobiographical elements into the lyrics. There are times, in fact, when he may be a little too absorbed with answering critics--and complaining about the loss of privacy that accompanies fame.
But the more personal elements help. "Stan," the album's most haunting track, is superb storytelling with a point. It has the affecting tone of such rap high points as Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" and 2Pac's "Dear Mama."
It's in the form of a series of letters from a crazed fan who takes all the violence and confrontation in Eminem's first album as fact. When the letters to Eminem go unanswered, the fan becomes increasingly troubled. Eminem finally tries to set him straight by explaining that the songs are just make-believe, but the message comes too late.
Eminem has lots of help on the record. Dr. Dre not only guests on one track, but also co-produces five tracks with Mel-Mel. F.B.T. (Mark and Jeff Bass) produce one track and co-produce five others with Eminem. The 45 King produces "Stan." The Bass brothers also join a flock of co-writers. Still, it's Eminem's vision that supplies the energy and direction.
This is a four-star album that is docked a half star because of the recurring homophobia--something that may be de rigueur in commercial rap, but which still is unacceptable. The collection is due in stores Tuesday.
** Whitney Houston, "The Greatest Hits," Arista.
As a singer and record maker, Houston has never been known for restraint, so it shouldn't surprise us that her first "greatest hits" album is a sprawling 2 1/2-hour, two-disc affair.
That's disappointing for two reasons.
Rather than offer casual fans a value-packed, single-disc survey of Houston's biggest hits, the collection is a bloated mix of Top 10 singles, remixes, rarities (including the 1991 Super Bowl version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and the 1988 Olympics theme, "One Moment in Time") and four new tracks.
The new tracks are the second problem.
Ever since writer-producer Babyface helped inject some vocal character and warmth into Houston's work on the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack in 1996, she has been moving in a more satisfying direction. The grittier, more contemporary touches on 1998's "My Love Is Your Love" album and her subsequent tour were especially encouraging. She finally seemed to be using that magnificent voice in truly interesting ways.
But the new tracks are mostly flat.
The duet with Deborah Cox on "Same Script, Different Cast," strives for, but falls a tad short of, the kind of convincing romantic tension that Toni Braxton regularly achieves. And even producer David Foster and writer Diane Warren--the team that was responsible for Braxton's classic "Un-Break My Heart"-- can't make the pairing of Houston and Enrique Iglesias generate any convincing heat in "Could I Have This Kiss."
The matchup with George Michael on "If I Told You That" seems equally synthetic, leaving only the moody "Fine," with its taut, sinuous beats, representing a step forward. Rather than a triumphant showcase, "The Greatest Hits" mostly advertises Houston's limitations.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.