The Lowdown: Eminem still makes more good music than the average Big Thief fan can fathom and still rewires his program more than the out-and-out haters want to admit or believe. So, for every Relapse or Revival (which didn’t grow on me, though I should’ve noticed “Like Home”), there’s still a Marshall Mathers LP 2 (very few flaws!) or a Kamikaze (okay, a few more here) where the gifted technician brings it even when the congealing brain doesn’t. With Music to Be Murdered By, it’s starting to feel like he drops surprise albums now because that’s easier than coming up with a lead hit single, but the Em album it most resembles is Recovery, because both are so relatively normal.
The Good: As Mathers himself is now belatedly acknowledging, the only things he’s ever murdered are beats. So, one darkly puzzling development is how hip-hop production became so even-keeled and on-kilter with the 808 era that Eminem, onetime purveyor of the deadest beats in the land, jolts a whole genre to life with the raucous buzz of “Yah Yah” and survives the curveball reggae of “Farewell” by pretending not to notice what riddim he’s riding. Lyrically, this is where Eminem means to combine the confrontational, spontaneous playfulness of Kamikaze with the moral grandstanding of Revival; see below to find out how that worked out.
But the best moments are when he just free associates as a pinball in the hip-hop machine, disappearing all meaning and persona and ego into his warp-speed ceiling-fan flow on a tune like “Godzilla” or “Little Engine”, which are no “Rap God”, but at the very least a Rap Priest. And the guests are not shoehorned in, so for once Em sounds like he’s trying to cohabitate with the people sharing his tracks: Anderson .Paak leaps out of “Lock It Up”, and giving the incredible Young M.A. the lead verse on the lead track could only have been bested by her spitting a callback about stabbing him in the head. But “I sell like 4 million when I put out a bad album” is hilarious and probably true.
The Bad: This may be the Eminem album with the lowest body count, so it’s unclear why he named it Music to Get Murdered By, at least until you reach “Darkness”, his messy attempt to say something about mass shootings from the persona of the Las Vegas shooter (why name him? Fuck him). It’s great that Em’s anti-gun and makes it his duty to educate a large following that his contemporaries can’t reach. But as with Revival’s “Untouchable”, it’s artistically and possibly politically a failure that Em can no longer connect the dots like he did on “Who Knew” or “White America”. He can’t both traffic in punchlines about the bombing of Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert and take sociopaths to task; he has no aim. And “No Regrets” isn’t the best way to title your song apologizing for your last PR crisis, but it’s on-brand. “Eat you pussies like cunnilingus” is idiotic and “I get dough like Ed Sheeran” worrisome. Aren’t you richer than Ed Sheeran?
The Verdict: For an album that includes the line “I just finished fucking a fish called Wanda” (Joell Ortiz, no Eminem, thank god), Music to Be Murdered By could’ve been so much worse. If he’s figuring out from scratch how to be a compelling artist again, Eminem’s improved the caliber of his beats and guests, taking stands against the right day-to-day injustices, toning down the tasteless (with the exception of the already-infamous Ariana line, of course), and rapping with the manic precision of someone who just snorted a whole sandcastle of cocaine and Vyvanse. If only a single minute of it was as hilarious or bracing as Chris D’Elia’s impression of him. He’s using way too many napkins.
Essential Tracks: “Yah Yah”, “Godzilla”, and “Farewell”