Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Marshall Mathers returns to his favorite magazine to speak out on freedom of speech, satire, race, music, Michael Jackson and the President.
Pay attention, homie!

Interview: Chairman Jefferson Mao
Images: Clay Patrick McBride

In the waiting area of 54 Sound, a state-of-the-art recording studio tucked away on a typically nondescript stretch of Detroit’s 9 Mile Road, a scenario is unfolding that few hip-hop fans could ever imagine: Eminem—rap’s contentious king of pain, the pale poster boy of beef, Mr. Anger Management himself— is in the midst of being served a barrage of snaps courtesy of a fellow entertainer. And... miraculously, he isn’t losing it. In fact, he’s laughing his ass off.

“[Eminem] should lighten up,” quips Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the infamously acerbic canine hand puppet from Late Night With Conan O’Brien, on a flat-screen TV across the room. “I mean, my mom was a bitch too, but I don’t go writing songs about it!”

Slouched in a black armchair, sipping on a 7-11 Big Gulp, the bespectacled Em LOLs like it ain’t no thing as the dog pounds his public persona. A crew of handlers chuckles along.

“But I’ll leave Eminem alone,” Triumph says with mock sensitivity before adding a final punch line. “He’s just a guy trying to make an honest living… ripping off Black culture!”

The room erupts in laughter, Em’s guffaws audibly trailing off last. Maybe at some other point in the rap superstar’s notoriously combative past, such barbs would’ve elicited a less laid-back response.

But somehow this peculiar scene seems completely appropriate here and now. Having just turned 32, Eminem might finally be mature enough to take a joke at his own expense. Yet he’s still juvenile enough to enjoy the crude rants of a dog-puppet character with a funny accent. (Whereas, upon meeting him at the 2002 MTV VMAs, he shovedpoor Triumph—and comedian-creator Robert Smigel—out of his way.)

For more on the dichotomy of Em look no further than the blond bomber’s new album, Encore, an exemplary effort despite the fact that the serious-minded Marshall Mathers side and sillier-than-ever Slim Shady seem to be drifting further and further apart. On the one hand, damn-near-cinematic narratives such as “Yellow Brick Road” and “Like Toy Soldiers” address last year’s controversies involving race and beef with insight and masterful storytelling skills. On the other, thoroughly bugged-out numbers like “Rain Man,” “Big Weenie” and “Ass Like That” find him avoiding serious content altogether, playfully experimenting with off-the-wall flows and random word associations with the giddiness of a kid trying out new toys on Christmas morning. For every “Mosh,” the noble anti-Bush bash designed to mobilize young voters and inspire a complacent hip-hop nation, there’s a “Just Lose It,” the LP’s predictably pop-friendly lead single sure to irritate staunch hip-hop heads as easily as it pleases the masses and moves their asses.

Speaking of “Just Lose It,” there is a high probability that you, dear reader, are aware of the brouhaha said single set off with another oft-troubled mega-star who once repped for Motown. Taking issue with the satirical portrayal of himself in the song’s video, Michael Jackson cried foul in print and over the airwaves this past October, and a number of public figures (BET’s Robert Johnson, comedian Steve Harvey, etc.) came to his side in support. Also among the MJ sympathizers, The Sourcemagazine’s publisher David Mays and CEO Raymond “Benzino” Scott reiterated past charges that Eminem has made “a mockery” of hip-hop, and (unsuccessfully) called for him to scrap the song and publicly apologize to the King of Pop (thus, once again putting XXL in the uncomfortable position of reporting on a story that directly involves our competition).

Three days after Dubya recaptured the White House for four more years, Eminem took a few moments between screenings of Triumph’s greatest hits and his extensive production work on the latest posthumous 2Pac LP, Loyal To The Game (a project he describes as “a dream come true”), to discuss the latest batch of issues that have arisen in Encore’s wake.