Imagine an Eminem album without the guided tours of his fucked-up head, the razor-sharp characterizations and the one or two sensitive moments. (That means no "Stan.") Then take away half of his rhymes and substitute some fair-to-above-average MCs, and you have Devils Night. Eminem's crew D12 want to make it clear: Their debut album is sick and wrong, on many levels. In the opening skit, D12 member Kuniva makes a public-service announcement: "If you get offended by words like bitch, ho, sissy, faggot, homo, lesbian, fudge packer, clit eater - all that shit like that, then you should turn this shit off right now." Parents and people with social consciences that don't switch off, stay away; the rest of you, don't read too much into Eminem's duet with Elton John at the Grammys.
If the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers albums were slapstick trips into one man's psychosis and alienation - like the Marx Brothers starring in Taxi Driver - then Devils Night is a whole lot more simple: It's Friday the 13th, or maybe a Farrelly brothers version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It's less funny, and it feels a little more forced, as if Eminem and his five buddies are stuck in a peer-pressure spiral trying to outdo each other.
In the gross-out department, no one in D12 can outdo Bizarre, the group's most disturbed member. He's a comic Jerry Springer nightmare of an MC. "Smacked this whore for talking crap," he blearily rhymes on "Fight Music," "so what if she's handicapped." Over the course of the album, Bizarre gorges pills, sodomizes his grandmother (come back, Ol' Dirty Bastard, all is forgiven!), locks his son out of the house and, just for good measure, wets his pants.
D12 irregulars Kon Artis, Proof, Kuniva and Swifty follow Bizarre's potty-mouthed lead to some degree, with results that vary from silly ("I let my dogs out on the Baha Men") to just dumb ("Love to blast a mag/You a fag"). There are a few laughs, like when a narcotized Bizarre forgets the chorus to "Purple Pills" and just mumbles out some gibberish, or when he tells a woman, "I ain't into S&M;, but I love when you beat me." But coming more than a decade after the Geto Boys recorded shock-rap standards like "Mind of a Lunatic," much of the offensive stuff on Devils Night feels a bit perfunctory - as if the point of it is to keep the wrong people (parents, 'NSync fans) from listening rather than to engage the people who are.
Amazingly, despite all this, Devils Night has more than its share of decent moments. This is mostly thanks to Eminem. Tracks such as "Shit Can Happen" jump to life when he takes the mike. A few songs pick up where he left off on The Marshall Mathers LP: "Ain't Nuttin' but Music" is a sequel to "The Real Slim Shady," down to Dr. Dre's bouncy synth line and the Britney Spears jokes. In between swipes at his clean-cut TRL counterparts, Eminem makes some sort of a point. "What's going on in the world today?" he rhymes. "People fighting, feuding, looting, it's OK/Let it go/Let it flow/Let the good times roll/Tell 'em, Dre/It ain't nothing but music." He's not exactly offering an excuse for his excesses, but the track is a reminder that we live in a world where rap-lyric controversies get as much press as, say, race riots in Cincinnati. Em puts back on his crazy act in the horror-movie-inspired "American Psycho." "I'm a walking, talking Ouija board/Speaking in tongues I've never spoke this speech before," he rhymes, before kicking into a hilarious Exorcist-style nonsense verse ("Khem dellelleh/Enemech nomph meekh neesh meekh nopf") that somehow sounds totally on point.
Eminem's lyrical virtuosity is matched by the production on Devils Night. Dre produces only a few songs here - the rest of the tracks are handled by Eminem (with help from his collaborator Jeff Bass) and Kon Artis. But the Doctor's influence, particularly his lesson that even hard hip-hop can be pop music, looms large. Almost every track has a tight concept, a chorus that sticks and a groove that carries a melody. Songs like the creeping "Pistol Pistol" (a firearm ode whose release coincides nicely with Eminem's sentencing for gun possession in June), the woozy "Purple Pills" and the bumping "Blow My Buzz" are just more musical than your average rap song, without calling attention to that fact.
There hasn't been an artist who dives into his own trauma as deeply as Eminem since Kurt Cobain, whom Eminem name-checks in "Devils Night." The differences between the two are obvious - Cobain said everyone is gay; Eminem would be terrified by that thought - but the similarities are less obvious, unless you're one of the millions of kids who relate to Em's rage and self-flagellation. On Devils Night, unfortunately, that side of Eminem takes a back seat to D12's thug talk. Still, Eminem does reach out to his audience on some tracks. The guitar-driven "Revelation" makes overt references to Pink Floyd's teen-alienation classic, The Wall. "I don't want to go to school/I don't need no education," he yelps. On "Fight Music," Eminem rages like he did on "The Way I Am," while a Dre-produced orchestra pounds portentously behind him. "Just some shit for these kids to trash their rooms with," he says, identifying the adrenaline rush that a great hip-hop song can give you. Then he starts to get a little messianic: "I came to save this new generation of babies/From parents who failed to raise them 'cause they're lazy." He ends by saying, "This song is for any kid who gets picked on."
It's a nice thought, but Eminem only means some of the kids who get picked on - definitely not the teenage versions of the "Liberaces" and "Versaces" whom he taunts in the same song for calling him on his gay-bashing. Eminem just isn't ready to be anyone's savior; more troublingly, his defensiveness threatens to overwhelm his sense of humor, which has always been his saving grace. On the album's bonus track, "Girls," he launches into an overlong attack on Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and DJ Lethal. Unlike his funny Everlast parody "I Remember," "Girls" feels weirdly petty and, more often than not, just ugly. It recounts in excruciating detail how DJ Lethal offended Em, and how he could have avoided that sorry fate; it goes downhill from there, with Eminem calling Durst a "fucking sissy."
Devils Night's high points are some of the most accomplished hip-hop we'll hear this year. But the balance between humor, shock, raw talent and psychosis that Eminem achieved on his last two albums is off. Before, at least, you got the sense that he was muddling his way through his rage, using music as therapy. On Devils Night, Eminem is waist-deep in the crap. And his buddies aren't pulling him out.
(RS 873 - July 19, 2001)