Eminem has returned—with a new album and some new controversy, just in case you forgot this is an Eminem album. The last time around, he was railing against the scourge of mumble rap but this time, he’s backing off on the grumpy gramps routine. He spends a good amount of Music To Be Murdered By name-dropping newcomers and elder statesmen in hip-hop, seemingly intent on being some kind of bridge between the genre’s classic years and its chart-topping new wave. But Em’s semi-reverential tone is tempered with plenty of his trademark bitterness—for a guy who has been one of the most acclaimed hip-hop artists of all time, he still likes to think of himself as an underdog. But he’s been widely celebrated for two decades—despite some middling reviews for his most recent albums. On Music To Be Murdered By, he reminds you of how he became who he is—while also making it clear that who he is can be maddeningly muddy these days.
Like 2018’s Kamikaze, Eminem surprise-released his 11th studio album, alongside a music video for first single “Darkness.” That Simon & Garfunkel-referencing track is drawing a lot of attention for the video, which depicts a fictionalized account of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting from the perspective of the shooter.
“But if you’d like to know the reason why I did this / You’ll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea / I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness / Just tryin’ to show ya the reason why we’re so f*cked / ‘Cause by the time it’s over, won’t make the slightest difference,” he raps.
It offers a stark look at the uniquely American problem of mass shootings—through a lens of mental illness and gun control. It highlights what a lot of Eminem’s music is after 20-plus years: still capable of strong storytelling, still able to push buttons, still able to say something. What’s been just as true for almost as long, however, is that Em can’t seem to resist his own adolescent tendencies—and it can make for a muddied listening experience, even on his stronger works.
That dichotomy runs throughout Music To Be Murdered By, and just as the album’s talked-about new video depicts a tragedy from 2017, another song on the album is drawing derision for referencing a horrific act that occurred that same year. When Eminem makes a crack about the 2017 Manchester bombing—where 23 people were killed and 139 injured at an Ariana Grande concert—his penchant for provocation feels desperate and distressingly calculated. The line (“But I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game / Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting”) has drawn the expected backlash from fans online, and it feels like Em is forever beholden to shock tactics.
Slim Shady’s macabre fantasies are no longer all that shocking or revelatory, so his most abrasive and appalling digs come across as just obnoxiously juvenile for the sake of being obnoxiously juvenile. If that’s why you’re here, that’s what you get. Like fellow polarizing Gen Xer Dave Chappelle, Em’s shtick has become something you either come in the door expecting or walk past with a scornful side-eye. Em revels in his abilities as a storyteller, and he clearly fancies himself a dark Hitchcockian yarn-spinner both in this project’s title and throughout the album itself (complete with Alfred Hitchcock interlude). If only it all worked as well as it should.
He opens the album with barbed jabs at what’s always been Em’s favorite target: critics. “Premonition” sees the veteran rhymer still hyper-defensive about criticism he received following 2017’s lackluster Revival—he likens his fall in critical standing to late-‘80s LL Cool J.
“I’m LL Cool J: Bigger And Deffer / That’s how come I sell like four mill when I put out a bad album / Revival flopped, came back and I scared the crap out ‘em / But Rolling Stone stars, I get two and a half outta five / and I’ll laugh out loud / ‘Cause that’s what they gave B.A.D. back in the day.” His “fuck the critics” spirit continues through “Unaccommodating,” with Young M.A. riding shotgun as Em slings shots and declares his superiority in standard Em lines like, “When they ask me is the war finished with MGK? Of course it is / I cleansed him of his mortal sins, I’m God and the Lord forgives.”
The 47-year old rapper does sound engaged throughout Music To Be Murdered By, which would be a bigger creative victory If he wasn’t so bitter about being called out for the times on previous releases where things felt rote or phoned-in.
The Ed Sheeran-assisted “Those Kinds of Nights” finds Em in full nostalgia mode, reminiscing about his early-aughts prime and boys nights out “back in the D12 days.” It’s the kind of rose-colored storytelling that makes the casual misogyny of yesteryear sound like just young guys club-hopping—this was how it used to be then, but we could all stand to be a little more self-aware now. But Em doesn’t seem to care about more than just pining over chasing women and dissing ‘em afterwards. Ah the good ol’ days! “In Too Deep” goes more for sentiment—a story of secret lovers maintaining a heavy affair as both get more emotionally involved than they should. “Godzilla” is one of the album’s more radio-friendly moments, with a winning posthumous guest appearance from Juice WRLD.
On the heels of his MGK reference, he spends a significant portion of “No Regrets” voicing, well, regrets, about shots he’s taken at fellow rappers like Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. “Yah Yah” fully embraces ‘90s nostalgia, with appearances from vets Black Thought, Royce and Q-Tip over a Busta Rhymes and Das EFX-referencing hook. “Stepdad” and “Leave Heaven” once again feel like Eminem doing what he expects Eminem to do on an album: offering pathos in the form of semi-autobiographical tales about his childhood.
Contemporary Eminem albums seem to fall into the same familiar trappings: too much emphasis on how much he hates the critics, shock tactics that are neither shocking or uncomfortably amusing, some odes to dysfunctional adolescence to remind you of his background, moments of artistic acuity scattered amongst a lot of skilled rapping for rappings’ sake. That being said, Music To Be Murdered By is stronger than the two albums that preceded it in terms of production and overall sonics. Dr. Dre’s hand in the production deserves some credit for that; with Ricky Racks, Dem Joints, The Alchemist, Royce and Em himself handling the beats, this is a tighter listen than it’s 20-plus track listing would suggest.
Music To Be Murdered By is a strong album, but Eminem’s gimmicks still often get in the way of what could be stronger art without them. His lyrical skill has never been called into question, despite his never-ending defensiveness. It would be interesting to see what he could be if he decided to drop the Slim Shadiness and fully step into maturity. The flickering glimpses of that guy haven’t always made for the most gripping Eminem material, but here, he shows that, when inspired, that version of Eminem is the most engaging one. Too bad he can’t get out of his own way.