The year is 2020 and Eminem is still hell-bent on retroactively tainting his musical legacy with garbage records. The last couple years have seen tasteless lyrics tinged in homophobia and sexism, immature lash-outs against detractors and unrelenting negativity directed at other rappers and celebrities. On his newest record, surprise released on Jan. 17, the legendary best-selling rapper is once again victimizing himself line after unnecessarily edgy line. And predictably so.
Music To be Murdered By is far more tolerable than his offensively unlistenable 2017 record Revival. Most of the instrumentation is a lot more palatable. “You Gon’ Learn” is the highlight with its jittery percussion and wavering, pitched background vocals. “Lock It Up” sounds kind of like a 14-year-old’s first trap beat cooked up on a pirated copy of FL Studio, and it’s almost endearing. Royce Da 5’9” is featured on three tracks, which means three guaranteed breaths of fresh air in which I don’t have to listen to Eminem whining.
When it comes down to it though, most of the usual modern era Marshall Mathers missteps are in full effect. I did a little chuckle and sigh when I saw Ed Sheeran and Skylar Grey on the tracklist — oh, Eminem, will you ever learn? — But I could not stop laughing through album opener “Premonition – Intro.” If someone asked me what would be the absolute worst way to open a hypothetical Eminem surprise album, I would have replied with, “An intro track where he complains about his ratings and attacks his critics.” Lo and behold.
Wasting features on mediocre tracks is a violation of the hip-hop honor code, and Eminem is in flagrant transgression of the law. How does he sleep at night after putting hip-hop legends like Black Thought and Q-Tip on a beat as ear-grating as “Yah Yah”? I’m disappointed that Busta Rhymes’s iconic ’96 single “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check” will now forever be associated with the awfully executed vocal sample on “Yah Yah.” But that’s not his worst offense on the tracklist.
Eminem’s greatest crime was somehow convincing millions of people that the speedy-quick-rappity-rap bullshit from the last minute of “Godzilla” is remotely enjoyable. How it has 50 million listens on Spotify is beyond me — syllables per second will never be a meaningful metric in assessing the quality of a song. It’s a shame because the beat has contagious concert energy and the late Juice WRLD’s hook is heat. It would be playlistable as hell if Vince Staples was rapping over it instead.
Corny writing is a plague that puts the album on its deathbed. I don’t know where the idea came from that good writing is equivalent to squeezing multiple meanings into a shitty metaphor. Hip hop would be a pitiful sport if double entendres won trophies. I think when Eminem says “I’m coming after you like the letter V,” he wants my mind to be blown when I realize he could be referring to the order of the letters “U” and “V” in the alphabet or the titular character from “V For Vendetta.” To me, that’s the rap game equivalent of sending your Tinder match a poem where the first letter of each line spells out “SEND NUDES.”
This “multiple interpretations” writing style is stale throughout the entire album, save for one creative application on the track “Darkness.” The point-of-view imperceptibly shifts between Eminem’s own inner hysteria before a concert, and the perspective of Las Vegas massacre shooter Stephen Paddock. The crestfallen piano melody is a perfectly moody backdrop that lets Eminem’s narrative take the spotlight, and the hook is Eminem’s best in years. Even the “Hello darkness, my old friend” sample — lifted from Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” — makes for a pretty smooth motif, despite the line being memed to death thanks to Arrested Development. The track is the closest thing to a success Eminem has on the whole record, but it’s not quite there. It’s just too unsettling and off-kilter. The long-winded parallel between a nervous Eminem and a mass murderer of very recent memory leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and the audio clips of a mass shooting are discomforting even in the context of the song. The music video may end with a call to action for gun control, but the rest of the song doesn’t add up to that message.
Music To Be Murdered By doubles down on Eminem’s decade-long commitment to making bad music. His childish insistence that he’s “murdering” people with his “killer” lyrics is down-right pathetic. In a cringe-inducing Instagram post, Eminem writes to his critics, “These bars are only meant for the sharpest knives in the drawer… For the rest of you, please listen more closely next time.” Apparently if you don’t like Eminem’s new music, then this album was a big fat roast, and if you couldn’t tell that you just got #destroyed, then you’re too dumb and you just didn’t get it. His obsession with getting positive critical response to his music is at odds with his persistent wailing that his critics are unwoke and unintelligent. Don’t even get me started on Ebro’s embarrassing tweet comparing Eminem’s supposed lack of respect to being Black. Please just kill me already, because Music To Be Murdered By doesn’t live up to its title.