Eminem has been messing with our collective heads so long now that we expect to be confused: When is he in character, when isn't he, and when does he mean what he says? Just when we thought we had him figured out, he jerks our chain a little harder. The early word on The Eminem Show was that it would be the most personal of his three albums, and the report appears to be true. ''I've created a monster, 'cuz no one wants to hear Marshall no more,'' he whines, partly in jest, in the beat-crazy single ''Without Me.'' On the rest of the album, the monster -- Slim Shady -- stays off stage, and Eminem reveals the supposedly real Marshall: embattled entertainer, fervent defender of the First Amendment, and, yes, devoted father. What's most shocking about him, he's saying, is that he's not such a shock-value guy after all.
The playful, if dated, humor of the single aside, the largely dark ''Eminem Show'' focuses more on agonized confessionals than dis-a-minute one-liners (although there are plenty of those). The album is like a therapy session in which the shrink becomes a human beatbox. The unhealed scars of his childhood are pored over in ''Cleaning Out My Closet'': In the chorus, he apologizes for making his mama cry, but in the verses, he lashes out at her (''you selfish bitch'') and vows to be a better dad than his own absentee father (''I wonder if he even kissed me goodbye''). The song is both fragile and furious, and the syncopated music-box arrangement matches it in tension. In the creepy-crawly, mesmerizing ''Superman,'' he depicts himself as both sexual predator and commitment-phobic single guy. Then there's ''Hailie's Song,'' his pledge of love and devotion to his 6-year-old daughter. Like Madonna, he's learned the value of surprise and reinvention, and what could be more surprising than Eminem earnestly crooning -- not rapping -- lines like ''It all makes sense when I look into her eyes''?
Whatever calculation may be involved -- basically, it's the old sad-clown trick -- these are still among the album's most penetrating moments. They test him and his audience, who may not want to hear sincerity and psychological probing. But they also succeed in fleshing out Eminem's complexities and contradictions; by trying to understand himself, he shows more self-awareness than we might have thought (not to mention ambition, since he clearly wants to be taken more seriously).
Beyond allowing peeks into his life, Eminem's other gambits are self-pity and self-mythologizing, and they aren't nearly as potent. In songs like the trudging '''Till I Collapse'' and the bracing, belching Goth hip-hop of ''White America,'' he tells how persecuted he's been by the government, how his lyrics are constantly misinterpreted, and how ''I'll probably never get the props I deserve.'' Ruminating on his career in ''Say Goodbye Hollywood,'' one of several tracks with washed-out R&B choruses grafted on for no good reason, he goes so far as to say ''I sold my soul to the devil.'' Yet it's impossible to sympathize with someone who rose so quickly, and who delights in egging us on as much as possible. (Here, he tweaks activists who picketed him, hurls unkind words at the Bush administration, and becomes the first human ever to rhyme ''anthrax'' with ''Tampax.'') In ''White America'' and ''When the Music Stops,'' he boasts about his cultural impact, but as accurate as those sentiments may be, they reek of desperation, as if he needs to remind everyone, even himself, that he's still relevant. Meanwhile, the kid-and-slay moments -- skits in which he pulls guns on his manager and ex-wife, and the sexual raunch of ''Drips'' -- feel obligatory and disposable. His role as a jiggying bin Laden in the ''Without Me'' video is much, much funnier.
Like its predecessors, though, ''The Eminem Show'' is a testament to the skills of its star. The sludgy rapping of such guests as D12 only confirms Eminem's dizzying prowess, gob-spewing individuality, and wickedly prankish humor. (The most striking cameo, in fact, is by Hailie, who chimes in with ''I think my dad's all cray-zay!'' like a trailer-park urchin in ''My Dad's Gone Crazy.'') In ''Sing for the Moment,'' which includes a tirade against the media and politically motivated prosecutors, the intensity of his delivery overcomes the hoariest of ideas -- incorporating a portion of an overly familiar classic-rock oldie, Aerosmith's ''Dream On.'' The song becomes a clarion call of suburban kids everywhere, not just an easy route to a hit. On ''The Eminem Show,'' he's still raging against the machine, while admitting that he's a deeply flawed part of that machine himself.