Music to Be Murdered By (released January 18, 2020)
It’s hard out here for these middle-aged hip-hop legends.
Just look at the turbulent career of Marshall Mathers – an undeniable titan in the rap industry who has spent nearly a half decade fighting for the respect he feels he lacks.
Some of that disrespect is just a product of the times. But honestly, some of that fault can be found in the mirror.
If your hip-hop fandom began sometime around 2010 – which categorizes most of the current Drake n’ Trap generation – I certainly get why you’d be hesitant to throw rose petals at Em’s feet. Besides 2010’s Recovery and his underrated 2013 release The Marshal Mathers LP 2, Em’s material has been woefully underwhelming for a good decade. There’s an entire generation that missed out on his best work – and even his Day Ones have questioned whether he could regain his glory days again. In the world of rap, you’re only as good as your last bar.
This isn’t unique to Eminem, of course. It’s the road every artist travels this late in their careers.
But instead of showing and proving, Em has instead spent WAY too much time lashing out at an audience that, quite frankly, probably will never accept him anyway.
It’s so ironic to me that the man who became a millionaire trolling boy bands and lesser rappers gets SO worked up over 19-year-olds who harass him on Twitter.
At least that anger helped fuel 2018’s Kamikaze, an uneven but mostly enjoyable return to form. Music to Be Murdered By, Em’s 11 studio LP, builds upon that groundwork of Kamikaze – even though he extends himself a little too much.
I’ve had my criticisms of Em over the past decade but one thing I’d NEVER question is his lyrical prowess. Album opener “Premonition” is yet another middle finger to critics, specifically the struggles of trying to please fickle ears:
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
Memo to Em – you CAN’T please everybody. Just give us that raw and keep it moving.
That’s exactly what he does on the blistering “Unaccommodating,” where he runs amok with endless double entendres (“That’s why they call me Kamikaze, it’s plain suicide”) and hitting Berserker Mode with his controversial double-time flow. While Em’s Sonic the Hedgehog delivery can be overbearing in the wrong setting – just revisit his feature on Griselda’s “Bang Remix” for the worst example of that – when used sparingly it’s very impressive, as it does here. Young M.A. holds her own quite nicely alongside Em as well.
Speaking of features, Music to Be Murdered By is laden with them. Bad Meets Evil once again as Royce da 5’9 stands alongside Em on “You Gon Learn,” once again proving to be one of the best duos in rap history. Slaughterhouse (minus Joe Budden, of course) pop up for the album closer “I Will,” but the real slaughter comes when Black Thought joints Em, Royce and Q-Tip on 90s-nostalgic “Yah Yah”:
I’m the rap Pernell Whitaker, the honorable minister
Leavin’ every amateur inoperable, I finished ’em
Makin’ plaques outta they head like dead venison
Used to be the bad lieutenant with M-Illitant
Spillin’ over fabulous jams my man Dilla sent
Rap speak for me, I am the ventriloquist
Thought is just unearthly.
Em finds incredible chemistry alongside the recently-departed Juice WRLD on “Godzilla.” In fact, of all the tracks here, it shows that Em is perfectly capable of evolving to a more modern sound while maintaining his lyrical ferocity. That chemistry isn’t quite there for “Those Kinda Nights” with Ed Sheeran, an attempt to throwback to D12’s crazy club days. Sheeran’s folksy vocals don’t mess well with Em’s shenanigans. Anderson Paak’s contribution to “Lock It Up” is a lot more solid.
But it wouldn’t be an Eminem album without controversy. While I’m sure the think piecers will lose their minds when they hear Em’s throwaway line about the Ariana Grande concert bombing on “Unaccommodating,” it’s “Darkness” that will likely grab headlines. Em tells the story of the 2017 Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting through the eyes of mass murderer Stephen Paddock. The small-minded and short-sighted will scream “HE’S GLORIFYING MURDER #CANCELMARSHALL,” but take a breath and look deeper – instead, it’s a fascinating look at the mind of a disturbed man minutes before he destroys thousands of lives. It’s more an indictment of America’s gun culture than a celebration of violence. It’s not an easy listen but it’s not supposed to “slap,” it’s supposed to examine.
On his best day, Em realizes that hip-hop can be an art form. “Darkness” is a Netflix documentary for the theatre of the mind.
Music to Be Murdered By is filled with highs but, typical of his most recent releases, Eminem’s biggest setback is himself. At 20 tracks, Music to Be Murdered By’s length is its Achilles heel. The meandering relationship track “Never Love Again”; the uneventful “Farewell,” the silly “Marsh” where Eminem pretends to be an alien – sounding like something from one of Lil Wayne’s lean dreams; the typical “Stepdad,” where Em once again murders a dysfunctional family member – there is so much unnecessary girth here. I get the streaming strategy behind these 90-minute long releases but the filler really drags down the overall presentation.
No question about it: Music to Be Murdered By is by far Eminem’s best release in years. The only thing keeping it from reaching the upper tier of his discography is the unwarranted filler that constantly halts the album’s momentum. I’ve already seen some critics label this album a 5 star affair, while others have called it a complete disaster.
The truth, as always, lies in the middle.
Quite frankly, Em has every right to be frustrated with hip-hop in 2020 – it has to be annoying to watch critics faun over mumble rappers with the depth of a kiddie pool while he gets bashed for flaunting his lyricism and diving into weighty concepts.
But trying to make critics happy is a losing game. Besides, since when has Eminem ever cared what other people thought of him, anyway?
The only critic Em needs to impress is the harshest one of all – himself. That’s how real rap GOATS stay relevant.
Best tracks: “Unaccommodating,” “Godzilla,” “Yah Yah”
3.5 stars out of 5