Devil's Night (Shady/Interscope)
Eminem told Spin recently that he started his label, Shady Records, only to put out his crew of extended no-goodniks, D12. He's no entrepreneur. Or is he? Nowadays, everybody's got a crew, and putting out your boys on the heels of your own success repays everyone concerned—you get props for your wisdom and fairness for reclaiming your boys from the hood. Your boys get shine when they may not have otherwise. And the fans get to put some of their hard-earned cash into believing they're part of a large pop movement.
But if you're Eminem, and your crew is a collective of five battle-worn black MCs, releasing an album with them can only add to your already considerable mystique, not to mention your bank account. Sure, Em's got black back in the form of Dr. Dre, but a spin around the dysfunctional block with his original partners in rhyme makes Em seem true to his roots (though his recent spate of hometown scuffles certainly attests that he's a round-the-way boy). And edgy—always edgy.
It's a predictably desirable move, but what's even more predictable is the album itself (as its title would suggest). Devil's Night is full of the things we've come to expect from Eminem's potty mouth—drug tales, hyperdisturbing misogyny, and enough sideshow spectacle to put Ringling Bros. out of business. These are some hungry MCs—Proof, Kuniva, Bizarre, Swift, and Kon Artis—who are clearly ready for a shot at the big time. But something strange happened along the way: While Eminem was amassing platinum plaques (thankfully not jewelry), starting various pop-culture beefs, and infiltrating BET, MTV, TRL, and various other acronymic institutions, these cats played the back, content to let their whiteboy get shine, waiting for the day when the hole in the music industry ozone he made was so big they could saunter right through.
And saunter they do, resting lazily on Em's laurels and easing their way into the spotlight. Back-to-back cuts "Fight Music" and "Instigator" delineate the multiple ways to get yourself in trouble with everyone from your folks to your wifey to Sisq�Tired of wearing this yellow thong," Bizarre murmurs, "Take it back, Sisq�u know where it belongs."
Like any good Eminem project, no celebrity goes unscathed. Limp Bizkit and Everlast get skewered on the unlisted bonus track "Girls," and "Ain't Nuttin' But Music" is a cattle call of potential litigants—Em raps about naked flix with Christina on the Web, refers to indiscretions by Tevin Campbell and Pee Wee Herman, and, of course, delivers the unrequited plea, "Whitney, give me one more line to sniff." Naturally, Eminem's the star on Devil's Night—the backup band should never eclipse the lead singer—and he shines on cuts like "Revelation," where he tongue-in-cheekily relives his days as a rap-addled youngster: "Gangster rap made me act like a maniac/I was boosting, so influenced by music I used as an excuse to do shit/Ooh, I was stupid."
The rest of D12 try gamely to keep up, spitting enthusiastic drug rhymes on "Purple Pills" and "Blow My Buzz" and slapping around the fairer sex on "Pimp Like Me" and "Nasty Mind." They're occasionally clever, and often charismatic, but fail to make a dent on the insanely polished production of Dr. Dre and Eminem himself.
Of the crew, only Bizarre—yes, that's him sporting a shower cap in the CD booklet—stands out aurally and lyrically. His own 1999 EP, Attack of the Weirdos (Federation) is a disconcerting trip through a labyrinthine mind, and it's jarring to hear his twisted tales on a major label release. He's the one demanding a kiss on his booty, getting lurid with his grandmother, sullying his bedsheets, and locking Lil Bow Wow in the basement. Gritty stuff, and Bizarre's blend of cruel comedy and true tragedy is a mystifying one, approximating Daniel Johnston more than any hip-hop star. Even as he grates and offends, he compels.
But the problem with Devil's Night is its complete lack of self-awareness. Alone, Eminem understands his unique sociocultural position. But here, Eminem and fam are so busy self-consciously disrupting the status quo that they've seemingly overlooked the fact that, in hip-hop, Eminem damn near is the status quo. That's why it rings hollow when, in the skit "Steve Berman," a livid label exec berates Eminem for not making the D12 album sound like the other mainstream dreck, whining, "I don't wanna rape my grandmother. I don't wanna have sex with pit bulls. I wanna roll on dubs. I wanna throw bows. I wanna rock Prada." Damn, Em, after listening to Devil's Night, so do I.