The Eminem Show (Aftermath Records)

With the trying events in his life since The Marshall Mathers LP -- multiple lawsuits, criminal trials, acting classes -- you might get the impression Eminem was heading for a complete meltdown. You might even expect that the whole ugly thing would be documented on his new release, The Eminem Show. You'd be wrong. The three-headed rapper has recorded (and, for the most part, produced) the most intensely focused songs of his short but impressive career.

Unlike his previous vitriolic swipes at relatively easy, harmless targets like Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync, the trash talk on The Eminem Show is more dismissive than inflammatory. Instead, Eminem expends his energy lighting into the true source of his anger: his estranged mother, father, ex-wife and, in some ways, his country. The album begins bombastically enough with the teasing threat, "White America." With songs set to gloom-rock guitar and marching funereal drums, Eminem comes off loud but self-aware, speaking of the inherent racism in both his negative attention and positive sales: "Look at my sales/Let's do the math, If I was black I would've sold half." Is this the same kid who threatened to titty-fuck Bette Midler on his first EP?

From here Eminem conjures up a series of dark, often surreal stories of disillusionment and disappointment, including the gooseflesh-inducing "Cleanin' Out My Closet," and the relationship-killer "Superman" (which uses the language of hip-hop ballads ironically to make its seething point). The only dead spots are his collaborations with members of the less-talented and less-provocative D12. The album's most compelling song, "Square Dance," is also its most bizarre piece of production. Here, Eminem affects an Appalachian drawl while a scratched-out chorus serves as a distorted square-dance call. A short, barely discernible banjo pick cements the track's hillbilly nightmare soundtrack.

Dr. Dre serves as executive producer once again, and even though he offers up "My Dad's Gone Crazy," his most perfectly weird work since "Guilty Conscience," his tracks are still eclipsed by Eminem's own production. With so much trouble and so many aliases behind him, and so much skill accrued along the way, it'll be interesting to see what Eminem can do when he's old enough to move out of Andre's house.