Eminem's bust on Moby in ... 

Eminem's bust on Moby in "Without Me," "The Eminem Show's" lead single, is the silliest tiff pop music has seen in some time. The "beef" (Moby was one of many to accuse the rapper of homophobia) dates from 2000; guess it takes Slim Shady a while to come up with a witty retort. And now that he has, Eminem sounds adolescent. He calls Moby a fag, bald and old, a bitch-slap that feels more homeschooled than old-school.

But those silly lines may be the first time Eminem was unintentionally ironic, specifically when he whimpers to Moby, "You don't know me." If anybody in pop music right now is able to understand Eminem, it's the bald, 36-year-old musician/producer born Richard Melville Hall. "Show" and "18," their respective new albums, have more in common than meets the eye.

Their paths to the mainstream have been completely different; one's the tortoise, the other the hare. Eminem went from nowhere to MTV when his debut single, "My Name Is," broke in 1999. Moby's breakthrough that same year with "Play" capped a slow but steady decade-long ascension from club DJ to cult techno visionary to ubiquitous pop icon.

Following their makers' biggest albums (2000's "The Marshall Mathers LP" in Em's case), "The Eminem Show" and "Play" bear the weight of high expectations. "Show's" release was pushed forward two weeks due to bootlegging fears, and it immediately went No. 1. Moby's "18" charted in the top five in 20 countries the week it came out in May. Given the amount of anticipation awaiting these releases, it is no surprise that both are safe, conservative follow-ups that stick closely to these artists' previous winning approaches. What is unexpected is that they both sound like guys who think they still have something to prove.

It's a trait that's not immediately apparent on "Show," as Eminem once again lets loose a study of calculated contrasts. "Show" begins with the sizzle of a crack pipe; its last song concludes with Eminem's 6-year-old daughter, Hailie, calling her daddy "funny." In between is Em's usual tabloid horror show: women bashing ("Soldier"), family-tree chopping ("Cleaning Out My Closet"), graphic pubic talk ("Drips"), congratulatory excoriation of his whiteness ("White America"), and the usual glut of profanity, sex, violence, drugs, etc., etc.

Musically, though, "Show" is Eminem's most melancholic album, and it's all his doing. The three tracks overseen by his mentor Dr. Dre -- "Business," "My Dad's Gone Crazy," and "Say What You Say" -- are as densely fun as shag carpet. Eminem himself presides over the rest of the tracks; and, while he has obviously learned from Dre, he hasn't learned enough. The stumbling rhythm of "Square Dance" sounds injured and confused, like it got beat up on its way from the mixing board. And Eminem's nasal delivery do-si-dos around the discombobulated background. This setting puts Eminem's lyrics center stage, as happens throughout the album.

Only he's not playing as fast and loose with his image on "Show" as he has previously. Eminem's favorite subject is always himself, but in the past you never knew if that self was his nom de rap; his real-life Dr. Jekyll, Marshall Mathers; or his musical Mr. Hyde, Slim Shady. He rose to fame via a media persona that's all pro-wrestling hyperbole, a caricature of a caricature.

On "My Dad's Gone Crazy," one stanza opens with a memory of Em's perennial whipping post, his mother, and devolves into a litany of nonsense capped by a mention of "codeine." But unlike previous raps about "homosexuals and Vicodin," there's no slippery point-of-view prism making it difficult to tell if he is/isn't fucking around. As the title implies, "Show" is all Eminem. These words sound frighteningly from the heart.

It's a new wrinkle to his tripolar disorder. On "Show," Eminem is really not being inflammatory or controversial. He's not even being profanely playful. He's on the defensive and sounds like he knows he's got some 'splaining to do. "Show" starts out as much of a guilty pleasure as "The Marshall Mathers LP," but here the pleasure wanes with repeated listening.

Moby's melancholic streak has always been there. (Think of his minimal 1995 track "God Moving Over the Face of the Water," built on a sad, repeating piano line that crops up again on "18's" "In My Heart.") But he has never sat still long enough to notice it. Every time you think you have Moby figured out, he changes. Between 1992's Moby and 1999's "Play," he went through more styles than Cher.

For "18," he sticks to "Play's" formula: putting pop songs together piecemeal, using everything from old gospel/soul albums to soundtracks to loops. And almost every song on "18" has a "Play" analog: "We Are All Made of Stars" sounds a bit like "Southside"; "In This World" sounds a bit like "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?"

In fact, "18" really only mimics "Play's" ethereal and somber songs. It makes you realize that "Play" was the first Moby album to sound happy. With "18," Moby has returned to hypersensitivity: The record sounds like an 18-year-old alone in his room, mulling over everything wrong with the world. It's as though Moby feels hurt that some critics credited "Play's" success to mainstream ears finally becoming accustomed to DJ/club sounds.

To his credit, Moby knows how to milk a good mood swing. Lead single/disc opener "We Are All Made of Stars" is the sort of reassurance the adult Moby might offer his teen-age-loner self, a pat on the back that lets him know it's OK if his heart feels so bad. From there, "18" drifts through different downers and really only comes alive when there's a spirited personality behind the solemnity. "Rafters" weaves a soulful "Mmmm-hmmmm" humming through a shadowy keyboard line that smiles through the tears. Sinead O'Connor makes a lovely return from her decade-long slumber on "Harbour," though you know Moby recruited her to harness her voice's mournful undertow.

Moby often sounds like he's been waiting for the rest of the world to admire his talents as much as he does. Coupled with his ongoing advocacy of touchy-feely humanism, veganism, social/racial tolerance, and other Teflon topics in his online journal and liner notes, Moby casts a wider net of empathy than Bill Clinton.

But that's the one thing a media-savvy Eminem should have realized when going after him in song. If you're going to take a swing at somebody, it's more satisfying if he's likely to swing back. Moby merely jotted a note on his web journal, thanking Em for the dis. Moby seems to realize that the key to staying on pop's top is responding to and circulating in the changing times. Eminem injected Moby's name into the "in" pop-culture mix; Moby thanked him. Because, while Eminem is a titan right now, Moby knows pop's biggest stars fall as quickly as they rise.

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