Eminem, rap's reigning ne'er-do-well, is finally growing up.

Well, sort of.

On his much-anticipated new album, "Encore," the Detroit-born bad boy continues to indulge his puerile obsessions with regurgitation, defecation and various other icky-ations. He still has serious sensitivity issues regarding women, especially drug-troubled ex-wife Kim Mathers, who's serenaded with both a wickedly clever love song ("Crazy in Love") and a wickedly gross hate song ("Puke"). And Em's frisky bedroom play-by-play on several tunes would make even Lil' Kim wince.

But look beyond the nastiness (go on, keep looking) and you'll find traces of a kinder, gentler Eminem, a 32-year-old more concerned with understanding himself than belittling the tsk-tskers who just don't understand him. On this sonically rambunctious shrink session, he's airing regrets: about violence, about rap feuds, about disrespecting African American women on a song he recorded during his pre-fame days. The street-smart poet unloads his most passionate rhymes not in dissing enemies but in waxing on about his 8-year-old daughter, Hailie.

Yep, for the first time in his recording career, Eminem offers up more Marshall Mathers (his real name, a dude with feelings) than Slim Shady (his alter ego, a dude who fantasized on record about offing his wife and stuffing her in the trunk of his car). And how does his newfound maturity suit him? Pretty darn well.

Okay, so the 20-track "Encore" is far from the groundbreaking masterpiece his fans expected. In the time since his last full-length album, 2002's "The Eminem Show," the common belief was that the rapper -- as he starred in and soundtracked a movie (2002's "8 Mile"), as he produced for pals 50 Cent and Obie Trice, as he reunited with his childhood chums in mayhem, collective D12 -- was saving the mind-blowing tricks for his fourth official throwdown. Sorry: The beats, loops and hooks here are vintage Eminem -- that is, engaging but familiar, if not a "Lose Yourself"-style battle rap, then a swirly "Without Me"-type funhouse romp. Although a great singles artist, the MC has yet to put together a front-to-back brilliant album.

That said, Eminem still unleashes the most distinctive, inventive flow in the biz. He bends words, stretches syllables -- slowing down, speeding up -- and spews more quotable zingers than Don Rickles. Significant ballyhoo has surrounded "Mosh," a powerhouse rallying cry co-produced by Dr. Dre that takes President Bush to task for his warmongering ways. Over an ominous militaristic beat -- and the sounds of planes crashing, guns rat-a-tatting, tanks trampling -- the rapper offers up a new world leader: himself.

"Come along / Follow me as I lead through the darkness / Cause I provide just enough spark that we need to proceed . . ./ I won't steer you wrong," he promises before reaching a chilly climax directed at POTUS: "Strap him with an AK-47 / Let him go fight his own war / Let him impress Daddy that way." Eminem in '08? You never know.

The give-peace-a-chance message (and who saw that coming?) can also be heard on "Like Toy Soldiers." Structured around a child's chorus, a la Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life," the song doesn't pick fights with rap rivals (including his archenemy Benzino) but instead tries to settle them: "Even though the battle was won / I feel like we lost it / I spent so much energy on it / Honestly, I'm exhausted . . ./ This ain't what I'm in hip-hop for."

"Never Enough" (featuring Nate Dogg and 50 Cent) and "Evil Deeds," both about growing up in a fatherless home with a questionable mother, and "Yellow Brick Road," about being a white kid trying to make it in a black-dominated musical landscape, are straightforward autobiographical tunes fortified by basic head-nod beats that smartly praise and condemn his roots. (The latter track also includes Eminem's apology for a pre-fame demo song that slammed all black women just because one had the smarts to dump him: "I singled out a whole race / And for that I was wrong.") Okay, so the guy's halo isn't totally straight. There are a few lame gay jokes to firm up his masculinity. There's an unprintable dud song dedicated to derrieres. And the tired first single, "Just Lose It," features Em as a satanic (and flatulent) carnival barker, skewering Michael Jackson over a same-old dance beat and a Pee-wee Herman-esque "Hahaha!" hook.

The Dr. Seuss-meets-Dr. Evil misfire "One Shot 2 Shot" features the D12 crew using girlfriends as shields during a shootout. And the skippable "Puke" is surely the first song in history to feature both wet, heaving barf noises and what sounds like a klezmery clarinet solo.

But two songs at "Encore's" end reconfirm that Eminem really is a softy at heart. "Crazy in Love," proof that the rapscallion can still thrill behind the sound board, merges the ferocity of Heart's classic-rocker "Crazy on You" with a quick-lipped admission that Kim just may be his soul mate after all ("If there's one thing about you that I admire / It's baby because you stay with me / Maybe because you're as crazy as I am").

And on the tender lullaby "Mockingbird," Eminem tries to comfort his confused kid because even though "Daddy's always on the move" and "Mommy's always on the news," "We're all we got in this world / When it spins / When it swirls / When it whirls / When it twirls."

Sweet, huh? It's safe to say you still wouldn't want Eminem dating your daughter. But it's nice to know how well this complex man in flux is trying to raise his.

On "Encore," Eminem seems more concerned with understanding himself than belittling his enemies.At 32, Eminem displays a newfound maturity on "Encore."