The Rickety Old Shack

Eminem — Music To Be Murdered By

album cover

It's a new decade and we already have another surprise Eminem album. Released without any advanced notice, the single "Darkness" dropped at the same time the whole record came out. As tends to be the case these days, Music To Be Murdered By was immediately touted as a return to form for the rap game's best-selling rapper — regardless of whether that was actually true or not. Similar claims were made about Kamikazee (review) and I found them lacking merit. While slightly curious, even cautious optimism would be overstating my approach to this new record.

Parts of Music To Be Murdered By ended up being pleasant surprises, although I don't see this album as any kind of return to top form either. I've said it before, but I will reiterate it here: I don't think a return to his prime is possible, for a multitude of reasons. That doesn't mean Eminem doesn't have the potential to make good music, but he's a known quantity at this point, and he's got a successful M.O. that seems to keep his loyal fans satisfied. Hell, Eminem doesn't even think there is a problem, he's still angry that Revival was (correctly) panned, seething about it on "Unaccommodating."

That said, Eminem does seem to have softened on a few stances. After throwing barbs at cloud rappers on his last effort, he ended up featuring a couple — including the first posthumous appearance of Juice Wrld — so he's staved off being a completely out-of-touch old man for now. Eminem manages to gel fairly well with Juice Wlrd and Young MA, he indulges in some triplicate flow, and some of the beats on the record even feature some trap elements. "Godzilla" works better than I expected, although the hyperspeed rapping is impressive exactly once — it feels like technical proficiency for its own sake.

The record also features guest appearances from most of the members of Slaughterhouse, although those cuts are largely forgetable — not terrible, they simply don't have any memorable bars save for Black Thought namedropping Pernel Whittaker on "Yah Yah." We also get another Ed Sheeran guest spot, adding some auto-tuned warbling to "Those Kinda Nights," a grating brag track about Eminem's sexual exploits that runs 2:57 and feels 3 minutes too long. Skylar Grey is also back, lending a beautifully sung chorus to a standard issue collaboration between the two in "Leaving Heaven."

The real gem of the record is "Darkness." One of the main issues I've had with Eminem's modern releases is that he spends most of his time rapping in a staccato, angry cadence and only escalates in intensity to the choruses. Music To Be Murdered By features welcome diversity in the vocal delivery and tenor, and "Darkness" manages to be both somber and brooding, both instrumentally and vocally — it's a great storytelling track. There was initial controversy that Eminem was lauding the shooter somehow, but the track is a pretty clear in its intent — illustrating parallels between the Las Vegas shooter and other people, Eminem included, who go through dark patches in life. It is by no means a celebration of mass shootings or Stephen Paddock.

Eminem is a contradictory figure, to the point that I just don't bother trying to discern his exact ideology; he can produce a sobering narrative like "Darkness" and then make jokes about the Ariana Grande bombing on the same record. At this point, it is impossible to be offended because that would imply that I think Eminem is above such things and we have a couple decades of proof that he is not. Fool me 254 times, shame on me, as the saying goes.

The rest of the album is decent but largely forgettable. The median quality level of the other cuts is above the last 2 albums at least, but there are still some irritating aspects. For whatever reason, Eminem still thinks triple-tracking vocal harmonies makes for a good chorus — it does not. There are some dad joke-level raps, albeit not as many as usual, such as the line "I'm talkin' euthanasia like kids in Taiwan" on "Stepdad." That track is a real mixed bag, packed full of visceral hatred directed at its namesake but the beat and some of the lyrics feel tonally wrong. "Little Engine" has an obnoxious flow and Anderson Paak feels somewhat underutilised on "Lock It Up," while the rest failed to stick in my memory.

In terms of recent Eminem albums, Music To Be Murdered By is definitely trending in the right direction. Far from a homerun, but he didn't crack off a bunch of foul balls and then get tagged out on the way to first base either. There's enough meat on the bone that devoted fans will no doubt be ecstatic, but I don't know if there is enough laudable material to bring back anyone who (justifiably) lost interest in Eminem years ago. Some of the shtick is certainly dated — aside from assholes like me, who are these Jon Benet Ramsey references for? — but Eminem remains a gifted emcee when he's not coasting on his considerable technical acumen.

Music To Be Murdered By is worth a look, but don't expect any real surprises. Even "Darkness" doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know, Eminem proved he could tell a nuanced, emotional story way back when he dropped "Stan," so even "Darkness" is not outside his wheelhouse. Still, this is a respectable effort from an artist I've been utterly disappointed with for a long, long time. If you're done with Eminem, this will not change your mind but everyone else should find a few things they like.

Summary

Eminem is back with another 64 minutes of material on Music To Be Murdered By. While hardly a return to his glory days, Eminem manages to produce a better collection of material than he has in many, many years. Packed — although not overloaded with — guest features, puts out some of his most diverse vocal deliveries and slightly more nuanced songwriting than usual. A very imperfect record, but worth a look by all but the most ardent detractors. "Darkness" is the real gem, the rest of the material ranges from fairly good to not bad enough to leave lasting memories.

Album Information

Release date: January 17th, 2020
Record label: Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records

Eminem — vocals, production
Young MA — vocals (track 2)
Royce Da 5'9" — vocals (tracks 3, 10, 19), production (tracks 3, 8)
Skylar Grey — vocals and production (track 9)
White Gold — vocals (track 3)
Ed Sheeran — vocals, guitar (track 5)
Juice Wrld — vocals (track 7)
Black Thought — vocals (track 10)
Q-Tip — vocals (track 10)
Denaun &mdash vocals (track 10)
Anderson Paak — vocals (track 16)
Don Toliver — vocals (track 18)
Kxng Crooked — vocals (track 19)
Joell Ortiz — vocals (track 19)
Dr. Dre — production (tracks 1, 4, 11, 14, 16, 20)
Luis Resto — production (tracks 1, 3, 8, 12, 13, 19)
Mark Batson — production (track 1)
Tim Suby — production (tracks 2, 6)
Andre Brissett — production (track 4)
Dawaun Parker — production (tracks 1, 4, 20)
DA Doman — production (tracks 5, 7, 18)
Mr. Porter — production (track 10)
The Alchemist — production (track 12)
Dem Jointz — production (tracks 14, 16)
Trevor Lawrence Jr. — production (tracks 14, 15, 16)
Erik Griggs — production (tracks 15, 16)
Ricky Racks — production (track 17)

Track Listing

  1. Premonition (Intro)
  2. Unaccommodating
  3. You Gon' Learn
  4. Alfred (Interlude)
  5. Those Kinda Nights
  6. In Too Deep
  7. Godzilla
  8. Darkness
  9. Leaving Heaven
  10. Yah Yah
  11. Stepdad (Intro)
  12. Stepdad
  13. Marsh
  14. Never Love Again
  15. Little Engine
  16. Lock It Up
  17. Farewell
  18. No Regrets
  19. I Will
  20. Alfred (Outro)

Link: spotify.com

—by Derek

Published: January 29th, 2020.