More than two decades have passed since Eminem’s breakout single My Name Is… arrived, announcing him as the most outrageously skillful rapper of his time. At 47, Marshall Mathers Jr shows no signs of slowing down – if anything, he’s speeding up. At the frenetic conclusion of monster new track Godzilla, he knocks out 229 words (containing 339 syllables) in 30 seconds; some rap websites are already claiming the average of 7.6 words per second a world record.
What is more impressive is that he makes every word count. He declares “I’m unfadable / You wanna battle, I’m available, I’m blowin’ up like an inflatable / I’m undebatable, I’m unavoidable, I’m unevadable.” I am not sure the latter is actually a word but you know exactly what he means: every rapper who wants to lay claim to the hip hop crown is going to have to get past Eminem first. The grandstanding champion has pugnaciously inserted himself into the new decade by dropping an unannounced double album as punchy, melodramatic and brilliant as anything he has ever done.
The lugubrious tones of Alfred Hitchcock provide spoken interludes and thematic context, sampled from a 1958 orchestral compilation from which Eminem has also borrowed the title, Music to Be Murdered By. Homicide is a repeated subject (as it has been throughout Eminem’s career), although the angle shifts from lurid first person fictional narratives of violence to jokey threats and musical metaphors, with Eminem rapping about poisonous pens and threatening to “murder this beat” on closing track I Will.
He may pepper rhymes with dubious associations to American serial killers John Wayne Gacey, Richard Ramirez (known as The Night Stalker), Albert de Salvo (the Boston Strangler) and Charles Manson, but there is something grittier and more substantial in many of Eminem’s murder stories. On the rocky Stepdad, Eminem invests the narrative of a teenage boy killing an abusive stepfather with the emotional heft of social-realist drama. The astonishing Darkness (which circles around a haunting musical quote from Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence) offers a chilling take on Stephen Paddock’s 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, building a powerful case for gun control. The message is driven home by the song’s chilling coda, in which one broadcast of a mass shooting is piled on top of another while a voice sadly sings “hello darkness my old friend.”
Nevertheless, within hours of the album’s release, Eminem was mired in controversy over a reference to the 2017 Manchester Arena suicide bombing. It pops up as an almost throwaway remark during Unaccommodating, a track detailing his disdain for rival rappers. “I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game / Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting.” Families of some of the 22 victims have expressed their upset on social media.
Yet, for better or worse, it wouldn’t be much of an Eminem album if he wasn’t upsetting someone. At times, his appeal is like that of a shocking stand-up comedian, always goading himself to say the unsayable. “I’m the complete opposite of these r------ who spit these weak bars, I’ma leave carnage,” he declares. “Each thought’ll be so toxic, it’ll block the wind through your esophagus / Stop it, cutting off your oxygen.”
When every line and idea is so ridiculously out of proportion to the subject matter, the impact can be akin to a brain-numbing assault of verbal blows. But it only works because Eminem is a bold and brilliant wordsmith, piling up internal rhymes and employing a vast vocabulary. His impressive command of metre and scansion creates a sense of unstoppable impetus. On top of which his delivery is always pitch-perfect, shifting rhythm and emphasis with the instincts of a natural thespian. I don’t think there is anyone else in rap with his range of skills.
It remains hard to unequivocally champion Eminem when so many elements of his art are deeply, provocatively and intentionally offensive. There is plenty here for any reasonable person might object to, including blasts of horrible sexism, sneering misogyny and just general nastiness.
Yet, at the root of what he does lies the moral disgust of a satirist who disparages the whole of mankind, himself included. Allied to crisp beats and catchy hooks, with guest appearances from a galaxy of stars including Ed Sheeran, Q Tip, Anderson.Paak and the late rapper Juice WRLD (who died aged 21 in December), Eminen’s 11th album offers over an hour of the world’s greatest rapper blasting away on all cylinders. It is the first great album of 2020, so lethally brilliant it should be a crime.