Eminem has spent the Trump era spinning yarns and spinning his wheels between three competing poles. There’s the stunt-pilot rhyme-ripper performing lyrical feats of fury, there’s the pop hero still able to storm the charts with a surprise album, and there’s the incisive diarist spilling bloody truths and bloodier half truths. (His apotheosis, 2002 single “Lose Yourself,” was naturally a combination of all three.) Eleventh album Music to Be Murdered By follows the same beats as his last two, 2017’s Revival and 2018’s Kamikaze, equal parts phenomenal and frustrating, masterful and misguided. Your appreciation will depend on which Slim Shady you would like to stand up.
For fans of Eminem’s ever-stunning displays of technical wizardry, there’s “Yah Yah,” a highlight of the album and perhaps the highlight of Em’s last half-decade. Over a Denaun beat that sounds like a droning Neptunes outtake, Eminem trades bars with fellow scatterguns Royce da 5’9″, Black Thought of the Roots, and Q-Tip, namechecking or referencing nearly three dozen old-school rap legends between them. Tracks like “Unaccomodating,” “You Gon’ Learn,” “Godzilla,” and “No Regrets” are classic Marshall Mathers, taking aim at targets both familiar and new (Machine Gun Kelly, Ray J, Tee Grizzley, Tyler, the Creator). He’ll occasionally burst into a jaw-dropping display of fast-rap insanity (“‘Cause I’m beginnin’ to feel like I’m mentally ill/I’m Attila, kill or be killed, I’m a killer bee, the vanilla gorilla”) and joins 75 percent of rap supergroup Slaughterhouse for a skills-and-no-frills posse cut. For fans of vintage rap formalism — sharp disses, syllable stacking, punchlines, non-trap beats — there’s plenty to love here.
However, Eminem’s missteps — as is the case for pretty much all his music since 2010’s Recovery — come when he does anything besides try to be the world’s most famous tangle-brained battle rapper. “Darkness” is like an optical illusion thanks to puns and extended metaphors — on first listen, the first two verses are about Eminem’s stage fright, on second listen the song is him rapping as Las Vegas shooter Stephan Paddock. As a plea for gun reform, it picks the wrong protagonist; as a Joker-style character study, it’s not illuminating; as a storytelling trick, it’s morbid exploitation. “Leaving Heaven” screams focused rage at an absent biological father (“You know,” Eminem spits, “I should dig your motherf—g ass up just to spit in your f—g face”), but stiff production and a Skylar Grey chorus make it sound like a weak Elle King rip. “Never Love Again” is an addiction song that is skillfully written to sound like the umpteenth song about his ex-wife: Even a sly tweak on well-trod ground still sounds like well-trod ground.
As a whole, Music to Be Murdered By is as hit-and-miss as anything Eminem has released this side of the millennium. But remove the skits, the relationship songs, the family songs, the morose gun control song, and the quirky Ed Sheeran club goof and you still have 36 solid minutes of the daffy, one-of-a-kind rap genius that keeps captivating true-school heads and longtime fans. Or, if you’d like, keep it all and you still have the most solid work he’s done in a few years. B.
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