Eminem’s been to the movies. Well, there’s always been a distinctly cinematic bent to his melodramatic horror-core, which evokes violence and warped fantasy as vividly as the gnarliest of slasher flicks. There’s something very specific about our shared cultural sensibilities that leads people to clutch their pearls when a rapper says something in a song, but barely shrug when a filmmaker depicts despair and bloody conflict on screen.
That’s perhaps the underlying gripe espoused on Eminem’s surprise-released 11th studio album, which borrows its title from 1958’s ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents… Music To Be Murdered By’. The original record featured the acclaimed ‘Psycho’ director purring vague threats to the listener in-between a soothing, orchestral score for an imaginary film. At one point he intoned: “By now you have learned the sad truth – that being a murder victim can be inconvenient at times… You may already be on a cold slab in a draughty room.” The cover depicted him holding a gun and an axe to his own head, a pose Eminem recreates on that of this new album. The rapper appears to be asking: ‘who’s sicker?’
Within hours of the album dropping this morning (Friday January 17), outraged listeners had already decided that the answer was well and truly Eminem, who in ‘Unaccommodating’ makes a joke about the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack in which 22 people were murdered. “I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game/Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting,” he spits, stuttering like a fax machine in the strange, robotic cadence that’s come to define his latter-day output. It’s a lame, flippant line precision-engineered to create exactly the kind of backlash it has done. 21 years since ‘The Slim Shady LP’ sent a wave of fear through Middle America, what’s more surprising than the lyric is the fact that Eminem still gets a kick out of this stuff.
Elsewhere he doubles down on the killer cosplay, though ‘Darkness’ is in fact a bitter and effective satire of American gun violence. In it he adopts the role of a shooter – specifically the perpetrator of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas – who guns down rows and rows of concert-goers, loose percussion and tinkling piano crawling through the track as he coldly recounts “Leaning out the window… Finger on the trigger/But I’m a licensed owner/With no prior convictions/So law says the sky’s the limit… Got ‘em hopping over walls and climbing fences.” The song peters out behind overlapping audio of countless news reports of mass shootings in America.
It’s as challenging as any brilliant satire, and leaves you with a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. Eminem makes stupid and tasteless jokes, but this stuff is happening for real every day. On ‘Leaving Heaven’, he challenges the notion that he’s a toxic figure: “It’s only one percent/Who overcome the shit/They underwent… Don’t tell me about struggle, bitch – I lived it… And I don’t know if I would call that white privilege”. Of course, it’s entirely possible that white privilege helped Eminem become the biggest musical phenomenon of the early noughties, but with white working class American citizens in the grip of a devastating opioid crisis, it’s a timely reminder of the unlikeliness of his success.
But the same track also points to a weakness, with singer-songwriter Skylar Grey featuring on an overblown chorus that follows the template Eminem’s leant on since the smash success of his 2010 Rihanna collaboration ‘Love The Way You Lie’. Stylistically this record is all over the place, at times sounding like it’s stuck in a time-warp and at others just plain goofy – see the lurching rap-rock of ‘Stepdad’. On ‘Godzilla’, which features the late Juice WRLD, Eminem leans into a ludicrous tirade that sounds like it’s set to double speed, launching forth a cavalcade of syllables that blur into one another.
The comedian Chris D’elia went viral for imitating this same flow in 2018, a fact that Eminem references with a laugh at the end of the track. For an artist who claims – quite convincingly – to not give a fuck what anyone thinks of him, he seems to have spent a lot of time Googling himself. On opener ‘Premonition – Intro’, he mutters that he can’t win, receiving bad reviews whatever he releases: “I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” He sounds angry on ‘Music To Be Murdered By’, and he sounded angry on 2018’s ‘Kamikaze’, which took a scorched-earth policy, sending for everyone in hip-hop.
The ire suits him. For all the clumsiness of some these tracks, we may look back at this stage in Eminem’s career as late purple patch, a period of inspiration that saw him enter a strange sphere of his own, no longer setting trends and dominating the mainstream, but experimenting vocally in a vacuum only he inhabits. This album is at its most effective when the music is stripped-back, giving space to his vocal acrobatics: see the creepy-crawly ‘Marsh’, on which a tinny beat underpins his bug-eyed flow and silly voices; or the verse from ‘Those Kinda Nights’, which bounces along with an unchained-sounding Em (“this beat keeps taking me back/Like my ex does”) before Ed Sheeran butts in with one of his corny pop choruses.
Even those annoying hooks, though, ultimately underline what an eccentric album on ‘Music To Be Murdered By’ is. Hitchcock crops up every now and then, via borrowed dispatches from his 1958 record. Before ‘Little Engine’, he reminds the listener, “this was meant for your listening pleasure while you are being done in”. In 2017 The New York Times dubbed Eminem’s later work “outsider art”, a tagline that still holds true. Eminem can bolt on a pompous Ed Sheeran chorus, but the singer’s cookie-cutter commercial sensibilities just make the rapper look even weirder by comparison. Who else would have smoother-talker Anderson .Paak croon through a track about slitting throats, as Eminem does on ‘Lock It’?
Executive-produced, as ever, by Dr. Dre, this is a leaner collection than ‘Kamikaze’ or ‘Revival’; the clumsy stylistic eclecticism is generally outweighed by the album’s energy and Eminem’s inventive delivery.
Eminem’s discography once looked lopsided, youthful iconoclasm dissipating into creative exhaustion. But now it comes across as a little more interesting. These curious newer records may age well, offering up the sound of a rapper working out his place in middle-age. On ‘No Regrets’ he admits that he shouldn’t have made a homophobic joke levelled at Tyler, The Creator on ‘Kamikaze’: “Thinking I run shit/Misplacing my anger enough to give Earl and Tyler, the Creator the brunt/Should’ve never made a response, should’ve just aimed for the fake ones and traitorous punks.” Will he one day end up apologising for that knuckle-headed Manchester bombings line too? The bigger question is this: should Eminem continue to grow old disgracefully, or cut the stately figure he adopts on the moving and impactful pro-gun control track ‘Darkness’?
He splits the difference on ‘Music To Be Murdered By’, indulging his immature ego (griping at bad reviews, stirring controversy for the sake of it) even as he offers salient social criticism and admits his missteps. He’s ready to pass on hard-earned wisdom before running his mouth like he hasn’t learned his own lessons. And he offers casual fans a hook or two before embarking on another lyrical work-out. It would actually be quite disappointing to see Eminem grow up entirely, and he seems to be having fun as he navigates his own idiosyncratic space.
And if you’re still upset by this 47-year-old man’s rap record? To paraphrase a famous scary movie trailer: “Remember – to avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only an album, only an album, only an album…’”