Eminem has made a career of messing with our minds, and the two singles that preceded Encore, his fourth album, looked to be part of his ever-provocative master plan. First came the sarcastically bouncy ''Just Lose It,'' a lazy retread of earlier hits that, with its easy-target references to Michael Jackson, made Eminem appear to be the one who'd actually lost it. Quickly on its heels came single No. 2, ''Mosh,'' which, in stunning contrast, was nothing less than the sound of America's favorite Caucasian rapper at his most intense and focused. Protest songs made a comeback this year, but none captured doom and apocalypse the way ''Mosh'' so brilliantly did. Eminem is still a narcissist, of course he wants us to follow him to liberation, or at least to the voting booth but the power of ''Mosh'' made you forgive his never-ending self-absorption.
With Encore, Eminem's tossed us another curve-ball, but this time it's a surprisingly bad throw. On an album that sags with filler and trite rehashes, he sacrifices the rich, multi-textured productions of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show for thug-life monotony, cultural zingers for petty music-biz score-settling, and probing self-analysis for juvenile humor.
As it turns out, ''Mosh'' (which, like ''Just Lose It,'' is included on the album) is an anomaly. Instead of addressing other matters that extend beyond his immediate universe, he wastes time attacking his sworn enemies at The Source in not one but two songs along with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who had the temerity to attempt to joke with Eminem at an MTV awards show. (For all his anti-George W. Bush rage, Eminem often sounds, ironically, like a bilious Fox News talking head.) He's still capable of being wickedly funny, but tracks like ''Puke'' and ''Big Weenie'' amount to him and his posse sniggering their way through grade-school-level slams and fart jokes. (The tedious D12 are now influencing him, as opposed to the other way around.) The gothy grandeur of The Eminem Show is gone, replaced by grim, hookless tracks that are largely deadening, even when samples of old Heart and Martika hits are awkwardly grafted on.
Elsewhere, Eminem falls back on the overly familiar. Again he addresses a song to his daughter (''Mockingbird'') and explains how he's working hard at being a good father. Again he berates various women, including his ex-wife and his mother (although he's a little kinder toward his mom this time). Again he includes phone-call skits with his worried lawyer. Again he compares himself to a superhero (''Rain Man''). Again he insists he's a victim of larger forces attempting to bring him down (''Never Enough''). In ''Yellow Brick Road,'' he takes us through another long, tiresome description of his early Detroit years. He's still hurling spitballs at in-the-news pop stars, but it hardly constitutes progress to go from taking jabs at Moby (as on The Eminem Show) to mocking Jessica Simpson. One supposes he's saving his cracks about Ashlee for his next album.
Over the last five years, Eminem albums have been among the wildest rides in pop. As each song segued into the next, you never knew if he would be raging, joking, defensive, smart-ass, or sincere. (In the last category, his big moment here arrives during ''Yellow Brick Road,'' when he apologizes for that early demo unearthed by The Source in which he savaged an African-American girl for dumping him.) Eminem's unpredictability has always made him fascinating, if not necessarily laudable. On Encore, though, he's become something none of us would have expected: predictable.