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Six years ago, Eminem bragged in song that he’s “the worst thing since Elvis Presley.”

Surely, Marshall Mathers didn’t mean to say that he, like the King, was headed for premature health woes, under-the-radar hospital visits, a hermetic lifestyle, and a ballooning waistline brought on by junk-food binge eating , but if the rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit fits, you’d better get ready to do some karate kicks in it.

Em reportedly took ill over the Christmas holidays and was treated in the hospital for pneumonia and heart problems. This account, confirmed by his reps, has been accompanied by rumors that the formerly svelte MC has turned into Blimp Shady, with his weight now well past 200 pounds.

It’s a story bolstered by his mother, Debbie Nelson, in her inherently expoitative tell-all tome, My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem. In the book, Nelson openly worries that her son may be heading for an early grave, but if she’s really that concerned, a tough-love phone call might be a more effective approach than hanging his soiled wash on the gossip clothesline. Anything she says about him is open to skepticism, considering that he’s publicly derided her as a derelict, drug-addicted mom with Munchausen Syndrome, a series of disses which once led her to slap him with a defamation lawsuit.

Nonetheless, something strange appears to be going on in the House of Mathers. Ever since the public acclaim that greeted his 2002 film debut, 8 Mile, Eminem has seemed out of sorts, a man increasingly uncomfortable with the multi-platinum machine he’s created. This discomfort might be a testament to his sanity, but his work has suffered along the way.

At his best, Em convincingly played two polar-opposite roles: The self-mocking clown and the vengeful borderline-psychotic. Beginning with his 2004 album Encore, however, those emotional extremes have flattened out. “Evil Deeds” sounded more sad than angry about his childhood, and on much of the album he either whined about the abuse he takes from the media or fretted about his legacy.

His last musical release, the 2006 Shady Records comp, The Re-Up, found him glumly obsessing about how he rates next to Jay-Z. Only “Jimmy Crack Corn,” an intermittently witty goof, brought back echoes of the hungry underdog who turned hip-hop upside down nine years ago. Hip-hop is built around personas, and right now Eminem seems as tired of his persona as we are.

Gilbert Garcia

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Growing Pains
Mary J. Blige
(Matriarch/Geffen)

With her eighth studio album safely nestled in the top-five on Billboard, Mary J. Blige’s name has popped up (along with 50 Cent and others) in stories about an Albany, New York-based steroid investigation.

Unless Blige has plans to try out for the Mets, what could she want with performance-enhancing drugs? In musical terms, she continues to knock the 98-mph fastball out of the park. Sixteen years into her recording career, she’s the epitome of an earnest craftswoman, churning out a soulful - if overlong - self-help lesson every couple of years, if only to reclaim her R&B throne.

Blige sang in 2001 that she wanted “no more drama” in her life, but, really, a life without drama is also a life without any song material. Cozy domesticity may be an admirable thing, but it doesn’t make for scintillating concept albums.

On Growing Pains, Blige continues to grapple with romantic stability, and consistently suggests that it’s pretty unstable. Her brand of Oxygen-channel encouragement could be wearisome in another artist’s hands, but Blige always reminds you that her knowledge was hard-earned and that she’s still figuring things out for herself. It also helps that she has the vocal firepower to pull it off.

“Grown Woman” is classic Blige, a stern-but-sexy demand for respect from her mate that pits her rasp against a lean funk groove. “Just Fine” recalls late-’70s Jacksons dance workouts (the song’s kitschy video pays homage to “Can You Feel It?”) and is joyful in a way that Blige has never been on record. “I won’t change my life/my life’s just fine,” she sings, as if to prove that she can handle exhilaration as skillfully as deep angst.

The album’s many slow jams can’t compete with such high-water marks, but Blige rarely squanders her ballads on simple bedroom mood music. For instance, “Feel Like a Woman” has a Marvin Gaye-like erotic desperation, and “Roses” (as in, “life is no bed of ...”) finds her complaining (and then laughing) about people invading her private space.

“Shake Down,” a contrived duet with Usher, halts the momentum, and the album slows to a crawl toward the end, but Blige continues to hit that confessional-soul spot in a way that none of her many young admirers can quite match.

Gilbert Garcia

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The Big Doe Rehab
Ghostface Killah
(Def Jam)

No RZA. One skit. No-name producers stuck on soul samples. Wu-affiliated bros over Theodore Unit hos. On Ghostface Killah’s seventh album, the Staten Island rapper comes hard, tight, and mean, in full Technicolor — gnawing scenery like a fistful of Slim Jims, slinging street-life fantasies like grainy crack rocks. More than any other entry in the Ironman's catalog, The Big Doe Rehab plays like an adrenaline-juiced party record. Even “The Prayer,” a husky a-cappella-R&B turn from the Ox, is metered to match the overall forward-motion tempo. And with a mess of Wu-folk onboard, there’s a combustible Shaolin camaraderie rivaling Ghost’s already canonized Supreme Clientele.

An unrivaled master of urban storytelling, Ghost packs every lyrical frame with graphic detail. On the plight of drug mules: “I know niggas with crack vials stuck to they colon/ the acid done bubbled up, now they stomachs is swollen.” On environmental stewardship: “You buy ounces and haze/ I buy a forest full of trees.” On catching a cohort in flagrante while ducking the cops at “Yolanda’s House,” barking breathlessly through the track’s fake, weepy string section: “Oooh, I seen my man Meth goin’ in raw/ jumped up, balls out, hid in the closet.” Or consider “Walk Around,” in which an impulse murder strains a killer’s sanity: “Flashbacks of me blowin’ his brains out/ All I can remember, my shirt/ I couldn’t get them goddamned stains out/
OxiClean’s weak, round the chest area, right-hand side/ I’m pluckin’ off little pieces of meat.”

On “Toney Sigel aka the Barrel Brothers,” he’s busily hustling “cartons, Pampers, Similac formula” with an on-point Beanie Sigel over LV and Sean C’s murky, bone-smashing funk. “We hype for just being here,” Ghost exclaims on “We Celebrate,” a brash Kid Capri flip of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.” Seconded, dun,
seconded.

Raymond Cummings


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