On January 17th, Marshall Mathers — aka Eminem — quietly released his 10th major-label album, entitled Music to Be Murdered By. The title and cover image are a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s eponymous work from 1958, and the “Alfred” interlude and outro are the famed director’s orated introduction and closing from his own album. But Eminem didn’t use the theme to make a concept album.
Instead, with production by Dr. Dre, Tay Keith, and D.A. Doman, among others, the 64-minute album has Eminem performing a balancing act that invokes his crude alter ego — Slim Shady — with rabid foolishness. It has him rapping alongside younger artists such as Juice WRLD (in his first posthumous musical appearance) and Young M.A, all while still trying to provoke nostalgia by emulating his D12-era self and sharing the scene with established rappers like Black Thought and Royce Da 5’9”. Unfortunately, for a body of work that takes its title from the so-called “King of Suspense,” the album leaves the listener largely unmoved.
Over the last eleven years, Eminem’s musical releases have been a mixed bag. His 2009 album Relapse, which came after a four-year hiatus brought about by the death of his close friend Proof, was considered average by critics. It was a rough continuation of Eminem’s career from 2004’s Encore, which had been viewed as the artistic low-point of his career up until then. Though many considered 2010’s Recovery too radio-friendly, it showed that Marshall Mathers had indeed matured from the squeaky-voiced artist goofily rapping a gong-accompanied chorus on “Ass Like That.” 2013’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 was the sequel to his most critically acclaimed record from 2000, and was generally appreciated by fans and critics alike. While it was far from the rude, violent, drug-induced distress that had made its predecessor so ground-breaking, MMLP2 was a job well done — partly thanks to the legendary Rick Rubin’s input as executive producer.
Then came Revival in 2017. Featuring pop artists like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Ed Sheeran, the album is widely considered a mishap. Donning an American flag on the cover, it was argued that Eminem was attempting to be the loudest voice on the anti-Trumpian scene – a claim which can hardly be dismissed as he spews insults at the president and calls for society’s depolarisation on “Like Home.” It isn’t entirely right to say that political music doesn’t suit the rapper well. He’s delivered good critiques of American politics in the past, on songs like “White America” and “Mosh.” This time, however, having Alicia Keys’ smooth voice on the refrain accompanied with a soulful piano riff by Just Blaze only contributed to the inconsistent tone. The album itself seemed a valiant effort, but an unnecessary one. On the song “Untouchable,” during which he decries police brutality and racial bias against black people, Eminem closes the second verse with “Throughout history, African Americans have been treated like shit / And I admit, there have been times where it’s been embarrassing to be a…” before the chorus begins chanting “white boy, white boy.” It’s admirable of an artist of such grandeur and with such a legacy to speak out on police cruelty, but no one cares for a white apologist.
The fiery Kamikaze was released without warning a mere eight months later, in response to Revival’s poor reception. With Slim Shady labelled as an executive producer, it was an impressive comeback to the Eminem of old — the one who despised critics and got up in arms against their judgments. Clocking in at a tight 45 minutes, the album had Slim raising a middle finger to a size fans had not seen in over a decade. But as great as it was to have the antihero back, the response had switched over to simply asking whether his music could cut it in this day and age. Admittedly, it was a question worth asking. When it isn’t Drake tapping into Jamaican dancehall and London’s grime culture that’s dominating the airwaves, it’s choppy, aggressive flows over southern-style hi-hats, often accompanied by autotuned choruses and an amusing array of ad–libs (“skrrt,” “woo,” and “brrr” are some that come to mind). The thought of the permanently angry, in-your-face Midwestern rapper that is Eminem becoming outdated was gaining traction.
Music to Be Murdered By has Mathers utterly refuting that idea. From the opening song, “Premonition,” Em lets the listener know — in true 8-Mile fashion — that he is aware of the faltering path he’s been on for the past few years, but also that it shouldn’t detract from his talent:
Once I was played in rotation,
At every radio station,
They said I’m lyrically amazing,
But I have nothing to say,
But then when I put out Revival and I had something to say,
They said that they hated the awake me,
I lose the rage, I’m too tame,
I get it back, they say I’m too angry,
I need to get me some Dre beats,
No, I should hook up with Tay Keith,
Fans keep on pulling me one way,
Haters pull me in another
This reassuring self-awareness levels the playing field going into this album, eliminating any doubt that could emerge when thinking of its recent precursors. The following song, “Unaccommodating,” opens with a loosely rapped verse from the magnetic Young M.A. Eminem takes over with a pun-filled verse maintaining a double rhyme scheme throughout. To stay true to the song’s title, he references the 2017 bombing at Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert to close the second verse, before comparing himself to both Bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini in a slightly off-sounding refrain. Six minutes into the album and the title becomes crystal clear: Music to Be Murdered By is deeply offensive and many moments leave a poor taste. The soft–skinned would be ill-advised to continue much further.
Long-time Eminem collaborator Royce Da 5’9 starts the third track, “You Gon Learn,” with a contender for best verse on the album. Sentimental and politically conscious, one wishes his verse came after Eminem’s to make his part seem shorter. While catchy, the sluggish chorus only drags the song further down.
A pick-me-up produced by D.A. Doman (known for his ubiquitous catchphrase D.A. got that dope!) then ensues in “Those Kinda Nights.” The Eminem that has seldom been heard since D12’s album Devil’s Night is present, creepily flirting with women in a drugged state. With Ed Sheeran singing the chorus, the song is a clear effort to reach nightclub DJs’ playlists, and it should succeed, even if only for Dorman’s beat and Sheeran’s catchy high-pitched voice. As per usual, Eminem doesn’t reach his peak in party music. His verses sound like they were written in 2002, when being bisexual was considered edgier than it is today and when Eminem’s exaggerated cartoonish voice was still funny. In a blatant return to his old techniques, he sadly falls flat on his face. This is without mentioning the awkward transition from Sheeran’s accented crooning to the rapping.
After the dreadfully forgettable “In Too Deep” comes “Godzilla,” the album’s second single. This song on the album is the first one on which Eminem seems to be genuinely excited to rap. The record-breaking speed at which he recites the words by the song’s end carries a triple — maybe quadruple — rhyme pattern that is anything if not dizzying. The true highlight of the song, however, is Juice WRLD’s synergy with Mathers, as the young man delivers a grungy chorus, showing noteworthy artistic versatility. Sadly, it also serves as a reminder of another voice gone too soon. Fortunately, the fact that he has one of the best moments on an Eminem album is something listeners should add to his legacy.
“Darkness” continues the run of form for the protagonist. In what might be his best song of the decade, Em tells the story of an artist trying to shake the nerves before a show, chasing valium with liquor in a hotel room. A spectacular double entendre is unveiled when the tale ends up being that of the preparation of the 2017 Las Vegas shooter. The simultaneous plotlines are narrated over a calm Simon & Garfunkel sample, emulating times when Eminem spectacularly rapped over soft rock beats, deviating from his rivals’ go-to funk and soul sources.
To say the rest of the album flatlines from there would be harsh, but not an overstatement. Moments of brilliance are present in the OG-studded “Yah Yah” featuring Q-tip (who seems to have never lost his touch), Black Thought, and Royce Da 5’9” — both proven master wordsmiths. “Stepdad,” in which Eminem talks of growing up to have the sufficient physical stature to beat up his mom’s boyfriend, is a typical song of his — in a good way. “Little Engine” flirts with insanity as a start-stop flow is rapidly executed over a distressing beat. “Lock It Up” features Anderson .Paak surprisingly delivering a very fitting verse in a way which lets the listener easily imagine him and Em sharing a live stage. “No Regrets” featuring Don Toliver proves that Eminem is actually able to make a decent song with an autotuned newcomer. “I Will” finalizes the album in a decent manner, accompanied by recent collaborators Joell Ortiz, Kxng Crooked and, once again, Royce Da 5’9”.
Any song gone unmentioned by now is simply too forgettable or has a better equivalent in Eminem’s past discography, which is where modern-day Eminem’s limitations lie. A rapper whose peak is so far above his counterparts’ will always seem to underperform when not surpassing himself. Make no mistake, this is a good album, and Eminem is a tremendous rapper — strong contender for best-ever — but it doesn’t bring anything new. We’ve heard the man rap fast in the past, sing stories about his troubled upbringing by his inept parents, and be the Sacha Baron Cohen of hip-hop. But times have changed, and so has music. Unless Mathers shows himself capable of a watershed of maturity like Jay-Z has with his 2017 release 4:44, rap music is unfortunately missing out on very little. Then again, the man has laid bare so much of himself on record that there might not be much more to unpack. It’s the downside of longevity. Though, while his musical track record might end up being sullied, it’s still worth a lot.
In true rap fashion, here’s a basketball anecdote. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time because, in his prime, he was so far above the rest. Today, although there are many more contenders for best player, few could take Jordan away from the #1 spot. Impact and legacy are thus arguably more important than longevity, and Eminem has both. Delivering a good album (simply okay by his standards) in an age when albums just aren’t a big deal isn’t that impressive. Selling over 70 million copies between 1999 and 2004, however, is monumental. Although it’s admirable that he won’t quit, Eminem should at least reconsider his position, before he buries his reputation under his own music.
As great as it was to have the antihero back, the response had switched over to simply asking whether his music could cut it in this day and age. Admittedly, it was a question worth asking.