Death by a thousand bars.
On the opening track of Music To Be Murdered By, Eminem addresses one of hip-hop’s conundrums. That of longevity. It’s album number eleven and many words have been written. Words written by Eminem himself, scrawled on a notebook page in meticulous fashion. Words penned by music journalists left unpacking his messages and analyzing his place within the greater cultural context. Words packed with vitriol over his latest darkly comedic reference to whatever tragedy happens to fit the rhyme scheme. Enough words to fill several tomes in fact. In that sense: Slim Shady will always be one of the music industry’s most evocative stars. Even though many have openly turned their back, voicing their displeasure with words, words, words.
It’s appropriate. Given Eminem’s own mastery of the English language and all, a quality he has expressed great pride in. On his latest, Em might very well be operating at his linguistic best. The flows he concocts on songs like “Godzilla,” “I Will,” or “Unaccomodating” are some of the most impressive from the standpoint of pure craftsmanship. Not to mention his ability to pull double, nay triple entendres out of thin air; don’t even ask him how. From a--double-edged sword though his phrase has become-- technical standpoint, Eminem has transcended from man to supercomputer. As preceding album Kamikaze made clear, Eminem has allowed his own “Rap God” dominance to be among his primary sources for thematic inspiration.
Upon first listening to Music To Be Murdered By, shades of two of Eminem’s more recent albums were immediately evoked. Where Relapse played out like a love letter to the horror genre this one seeks inspiration in suspense. Alfred Hitchock opens an eerie instrumental from the reunited Dr. Dre and Dawaun Parker but this time the stage directions read different. In lieu of conjuring nightmarish accent-laden snuff fantasies, Eminem begins in a reflective state. The venomous “Premonition” is a slow burn lamentation stemming from the disconnect between his fans and his critics, who for all intents and purposes have become antagonistic forces. “But Rolling Stone stars, I get two and a half outta five and I'll laugh out loud,” he raps, drawing a parallel with LL Cool J. “Cause that's what they gave BAD back in the day / which actually made me not feel as bad now, 'cause If it happened to James it could happen to Shady.”
While many praised Eminem’s willingness to work with outside producers like Tay Keith & Ronny J, there’s irreplicable magic when he unites with Dr. Dre. Seemingly the only producer capable of capturing the perfect dark banger, Dre emerged from his overseer’s role to provide four instrumentals to Slim’s cause. Sonically is where the Relapse comparisons end. In a surprising turn Music To Be Murdered By shares many similarities with Revival. Albeit, a Revival blessed by better execution and a renewed sense of confidence. The journey plays out in similar fashion: a healthy mix of bar-heavy tracks, social commentary, and moments of romantic introspection. Only this time he’s rapping like he did on Kamikaze, albeit grounded by Revival’s focused concepts. The combination makes for a slew of compelling moments, many of which arrive during the project’s second half.
Where the first half feels somewhat inconsistent-- barring a seamless transition from “Premonition” to the Young M.A. assisted “Unaccomodating--the second half is home to some of Em’s best music in years. What begins as another love song on “Never Love Again” slowly unfolds into a layered and nuanced take on addiction, rendered brilliantly by Em’s metaphorical linguistics and Dre’s eerie descent into synthesizer-induced madness. “Little Engine” picks up where Revival’s “Offended” left off, with Eminem giving into his zaniest urges over infectiously arranged percussion. Arguable highlight “Lock It Up” finds two Aftermath alumni taking to another blessing from the Doc as Anderson .Paak and Slim Shady float over the ghostly haze. “Now my Shady babies are all stillborns, meaning abortions that live cause they were still born,” spits Em, his macabre imagery on point. “I can heal 'em with Neosporin.”
Though perhaps inadvertently sowing discord within the Slaughterhouse camp, the ends justified the means on the penultimate “I Will.” Facing a Buddenless void Em fits the fourth spot admirably, delivering the most razor-sharp and self-assured verse on the album. Over a beat laced by both himself and old pal Luis Resto, Slim unleashes scheme after scheme while lining the purist-friendly track with cleverly rendered references to hip-hop legends. A similar spirit exists on “Yah Yah,” itself bolstered by the presence of Black Thought, Royce Da 5’9” (who also lands a few production credits), and Q-Tip. Sadly the peaks are counterweighted by a handful of valleys not entirely glaring in execution but jarring given the Hitchcockian motif. For that reason the impact of Music To Be Murdered By can feel slightly diluted, especially when he’s retreading familiar ground; it’s unlikely that any murders will occur whilst the dulcet tones of Skylar Gray soar anthemesque. Nor over the hazy strip-club bender “Those Kinda Nights,” a playful reflection of “the D12 days” that raises an important question: might this song have been more effective had Biz, Kuniva, Swifty, and Denaun came through for old times sake?
For better or worse the dad-joke bars remain a recurring staple. Though the man is a dad and reserves the right to joke accordingly many have grown weary of puns as a general rule. Chalk it up to personal taste; those who have been with Eminem through “Big Weenie” might be more forgiving in that department than those who discovered him through a Don Toliver collaboration. Select few though they may be. For longtime fans, Music To Be Murdered By is triumphant at times, a validation of artistic vision where one wasn’t needed to begin with. For casual listeners or active dislikers it might harbor the same criticisms that have been voiced about previous releases: pacing, tone, eyebrow-raising lyricism. Where one might wince at Em’s insane verbal dexterity on the crowd-pleasing Juice WRLD banger “Godzilla,” another may be rendered awestruck. That crucial distinction between “he’s a legend” and “he’s a legend but” will remain.