Eminem begins his new album Music To be Murdered By with a women screeching as she’s being killed by some crazy slasher. It’s the type of introduction that’s extremely unsurprising at this point in the Detroit rapper’s career. It’s also somehow not the most provocative thing he’s added on a record (for me, that would be a tie between the Columbine line and the “Kim” song from The Marshall Mathers LP).
Regardless of one’s opinion on the sinister intro, “Premonition” acts as the eerie tone-setter for the majority of Eminem’s eleventh studio album; a frightening odyssey into the rapper’s insidious mind.
In the first three tracks alone however, Em predictably responds to much of the absorbed criticism from arguably his two worst albums ever; the ghastly Revival and the whiny Kamikaze. “But then when I put out Revival and I had something to say/They said they hated the awake me,” he spits on “Premonition.” It’s crazy how Em can entertain such a stupefying argument without taking into account how middling the actual music sounded on those two projects.
He continues his assault on music critics and the industry as a whole by directly referencing poor reviews he’s received in the past. He contends that people don’t respect artists like him or Jay-Z anymore, without first realizing Jay-Z still makes meaningful music (aka 4:44). Em clearly doesn’t understand that longevity means nothing if you’re not cranking out solid tunes (“Instead of being credited for longevity/And being able to keep it up for this long at this level/We get told we’ll never be what we were”). At first glance, Em still seems stuck in his perverse ways about things that ironically don’t matter.
Once the album finally enters the crooked ethos of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Em steps up his lyrical and conceptual prowess. The surreal “Darkness” may be one of Slim Shady’s best metaphorical tracks in years. Accompanied by a powerful video, “Darkness” encapsulates the disturbing mind of a mass shooter, and how depression and drug addiction can play a role in these harrowing situations. Em deftly captures his own battle with excessive drug use in the past, and curates an emotional statement that sums up these hefty topics (“I don’t wanna feel alone in the darkness”).
For the first time in awhile, Em refrains from taking himself too seriously (at least some of the time). “Godzilla” produces surprisingly great chemistry between Shady and the late Juice WRLD, as each rapper playfully summons their inner horror-movie monster for endlessly-engrossing shit talk. Em’s expeditious raps even appear self-aware, particularly at the tail end of the track where he pokes fun at Chris D’Elia’s impersonation of him. It’s about as close to the “old Eminem” as one will get.
There’s also obvious attempts at nostalgia, especially on the Slaughterhouse reunion “I Will,” and the obligatory Skylar Grey feature “Leaving Heaven.” The latter is a bombastic fusion of rap and rock that mirrors some of Em’s worst genre crossovers in the past (“I Need a Doctor”). The former on the other hand finds KXNG Crooked, Joell Ortiz, and Royce da 5’9″ in their respective pockets, trading bars about various pop culture references. I personally love the one Royce spits in his verse (“Terror to the business, married to the strippers, T-Pain/Student of the game pre-Kane, you n****s Post Malone”).
Nostalgia only works intermittently for Em on Music to Be Murdered By. The best usage of the term occurs on “Yah Yah,” a rhapsodic Avengers-like encounter with some of hip hop’s greatest spitters. The amplified bass and marching drums manufacture a perfect platform for Em’s brand of horror core. Q-Tip, Black Thought, and Royce join for what sounds like one of Tribe’s recent politically-driven apocalyptic pieces.
The production in general carries a sentimental nature to it. Em hooks back up with Dr. Dre on a majority of these tracks for an anti-west coast experience. Everything screams classic New York here, from the gothic keys, menacing boom-bap drums, and occasional bass. Much of the time, the instrumentals are menacingly captivating. Others…not so much.
When Em blatantly exclaims he’s bringing things back to the classic head bobbing days of Detroit’s underground, the results are awkward. He attempts another pop/rap crossover with Ed Sheeran on “Those Kinda Nights,” a ridiculous stripper-themed tale that sounds horrendous following the malevolent tone of Hitchcock’s voice from the intro. And yeah, we can’t have a Eminem track about girls without there being a tonally deaf lyric. This time around he raps, “Stripper walk by, I’m like ‘Goddamn’/She’s like, ‘that’s harassment,’ I’m like ‘yeah, and?”
While futile moments like those are few and far between, Em still fails to stay lyrically consistent. As impassioned as “Darkness” is, we still can’t forget Shady’s shortsighted Ariana Grande concert bombing line from earlier in the album (“Unaccommodating”); or the line about the twin towers falling immediately following.
There’s other moments of sonic ineptitude as well, especially on the cringeworthy “Marsh,” where Eminem compares himself to being an alien from another planet. His use of auto-tune is horrific and quite frankly unlistenable. Same can be said for “Stepdad,” which is a lame attempt at capturing Em’s classic shock value from albums past with lines about killing his stepdad with a lethal injection, “like kids in Taiwan.” The chorus sounds like some angry white dude yelling at his parents because they wouldn’t let him use the car.
Thankfully however, Eminem is more open and honest than he’s been on recent projects; both in terms of content and who he works with (even Don Tolliver makes a forgettable entrance). Aside from a few stinkers, a lot of these tracks coincide perfectly with his Hitchcockian ambitions. He stays within himself and cuts most of the bullshit that made albums like Revival so repugnant. I’m not saying he’s turned a new leaf, but at least he’s trying to make something cool and entertaining. If anything, Music to Be Murdered By proves that there’s still life for Marshall Mathers.