What did we expect? What did anyone expect? Eminem’s new album Music To Be Murdered By dropped as a clear-blue-sky surprise on Friday, and yet the outrage that followed was just a muffled, quieter version of previous Eminem-related outrages. People used to get excited to get upset about Eminem albums. Now Eminem compares himself to both the Las Vegas shooter and the Manchester bomber, and we get a bit of media muttering about tastelessness and sensitivity to the victims. If anyone is truly appalled over anything that Eminem says on Music To Be Murdered By, I haven’t heard it. Instead, the only person who seems truly upset about Eminem is now Eminem himself.
Eminem albums make for good psychodrama. They always have. He is a rich text. When I was an undergrad English major and Eminem was a sudden new sensation, I got multiple term papers out of his various self-conscious contradictions. If you’re willing to listen, Eminem’s records still offer plenty of insight into one of the most fascinating people in pop-music history. Eminem doesn’t have a filter, and he’s willing to be tragically, cringingly, painfully honest about what’s happening inside his head at any given moment. The catch, of course, is that this doesn’t necessarily make for compelling music.
Consider “Premonition (Intro),” the opening track of Music To Be Murdered By. The first few seconds of the song almost did murder me because they nearly made me roll my eyeballs out of my head. A woman screaming, a stabbing sound, a portentous swell of gothic strings, an anonymous wailing female voice who isn’t actually Skylar Grey but who might as well be Skylar Grey — most of these things have been constants on Eminem albums since the Clinton administration. But then Eminem starts rapping, quickly and brusquely and precisely, venting his rage about the reception to his last album. Of course, Em’s last album was primarily an angry spleen-vent about the reception to his previous album. This is the Eminem ouroboros. Once again, Eminem is angry about being angry.
And yet that anger has a detailed architecture of its own. There are dated references, and there are righteous punchlines. Sometimes, those things are one and the same: “I’m LL Cool J, bigger and deffer, that’s how come/ I sell like four mil when I put out a bad album.” This time around, Em is venting about how people don’t take him seriously even though he’s been in the game for decades, an indignity that he doesn’t see Jay-Z or Tech N9ne dealing with. “Nobody said shit about 2 Chainz as long as he’s been here,” Em grouses. But then, 2 Chainz released an effortlessly fun Future collab on the same night that Music To Be Murdered By dropped. Eminem has never made an effortlessly fun song in his life. (He’s made plenty of effortfully fun music, though.)
Of course, the real difference between Eminem and his peers is that his peers would never admit to feeling these kinds of anxieties. Even on 4:44, his painfully honest last album, Jay-Z never stressed about whether people would be interested in what he had to say. Eminem can’t help himself. Maybe that’s why he continually mashes the shock-value button. He needs the adrenaline of causing a reaction. If anything, he seems worried these days that he’s been too timid — too “woke” — in his recent past: “I told the woke me to go to sleep/ But still they keep on provoking me/ They’re hoping to see me completely broken emotionally.” And so that’s why he’s out here talking about “I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting.”
The big news about Music To Be Murdered By is “Darkness,” the song that, almost incredibly, is serving as the lead single. That’s the one where Em puts himself in the shoes of the Las Vegas mass shooter. If you judge it as a writing-class exercise, “Darkness” is a neatly executed bit of suspense. Em raps in the first person, and he starts off only leaving foreshadowing clues of what he’s rapping about. At first, we think he’s talking as himself. He’s in a Las Vegas hotel room, pacing, waiting for the show to start, hoping people will show up. He peeks out his curtain, freaks himself out that there aren’t enough people there yet, reassures himself, calms down. For maybe a verse and a half, Em seems to be rapping about the constant anxiety of maintaining his own fame, submitting himself for public judgment. But then there’s a switch in perspective that, at least in the video, is literal. In the snap of a finger, he’s a mass murderer.
Why did this need to happen? I don’t know. The video plays it as uncomfortably pat social messaging. As the narrative fades out, we hear the pained tones of newscasters announcing one mass shooting after another. Em looks balefully at the camera, and words across the screen ask us when this will end and tell us to register to vote. Sure. I’m sure Eminem is just as angry and stressed and impotent as the rest of us about these mass shootings. I’m sure he’s just as upset at essentially being asked to accept elementary-school active-shooter drills as facts of life in America. Maybe his expression of it is just clumsy and clueless — sort of like Em’s oblivious decision to steal the late Mac Miller’s thunder by releasing Music To Be Murdered By on the same night as Mac’s posthumous album Circles.
But I don’t think that’s what Eminem is doing on “Darkness” — or, at least, I don’t think that’s all he’s doing. Eminem is drawn to violence. He always has been. He was power-fantasy murdering his childhood bullies back when he made his first album. He hasn’t let that go. He hasn’t let anything go. As with so many other Eminem albums, Music To Be Murdered By makes for a harrowing trip through past unresolved traumas. This is Em’s first album, for instance, since the death of his birth father, who was never there for him as a kid. Eminem never came to any kind of terms with this guy, and he turns his lack of closure into a whole angry track. He raps about how he’s still disgusted with his father even if this man is now dead: “I hate that I’ll never get to say ‘I hate you’ to your face.”
There is more. Eminem is also still angry at his stepfather. On one harrowing track, he tells a story about how his stepfather, angry that Em’s dog pissed on the carpet, stomped on the dog hard enough that vets had to put the dog down: “He killed my chihuahua, this motherfucker!” Em then fantasizes about hiding in his room and then beating in his stepfather’s head with a baseball bat. And even as he goes over these heavy, awful memories, he can’t help but work in goofy punchlines: “Sneak up with a lethal injection and put him down like they did to my dog / I’m talking euthanasia, like kids in Taiwan.”
Em also fantasizes, once again, about killing the neighborhood kids who stole his bike. He comes back, again and again, to his broke and abused childhood, sniffing at the idea of his own white privilege by pointing out the differences between himself and other white rappers: “While Macklemore was keeping his room nice and neat, I was getting my ass beat twice a week.” And he raps about his own broken relationships and addictions. At least a couple of songs could be about drugs, or women, or the way he’s seen himself consuming drugs and women in the same self-destructive ways.
All of this is familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to Eminem. That, however, does not mean that Eminem has had an easier time dealing with all of it. He got famous by processing his trauma, in public, over and over. It made him the biggest-selling rapper of all time. That’s got to be a headfuck. And the thing that really sets Music To Be Murdered By apart, at least for me, is the way it flaunts Em’s obvious and overwhelming love of rap music.
That love is the entire point of a song like “Yah Yah.” The song’s beat comes from an old friend, Denaun Porter, and it features a verse from another, Royce Da 5’9″. (Royce is all over the album, both as a rapper and a producer.) The blaring track samples Busta Rhymes gargle-howling. There’s a verse from Black Thought, another ’90s-underground success story. Q-Tip is on the hook. On his verse, Em rattles off the names of dozens of his rap predecessors — some obvious (Biggie, LL, N.W.A) and some relatively obscure (K-Solo, Ed O.G., Three Times Dope) — and says, “They were like my therapy.” As the song ends, the screaming of “Stepfather” starts. Em needed that therapy.
That kind of thing happens again and again on Music To Be Murdered By. Em doesn’t chase the rap zeitgeist, exactly. Instead, he stays in his comfort zone. He co-produces almost every track himself, sometimes with old buddies like Dr. Dre and the Alchemist. He cracks constant references to days-bygone rap music: “Head spinning like Invisibl Skratch Piklz.” (That is a ridiculous thing for a rapper to say on a record in 2020, but as DJ-related punchlines go, I’ll take it over “getting head in the bucket, Marshmello,” which is unfortunately another thing that Eminem says on this album.) He brings in younger rap figures who meet his own definition of what rap should be — Young M.A, Anderson .Paak — rather than kvetching about all the stuff that doesn’t. And more importantly, Em raps with passion and authority throughout the album. He doesn’t sound like he’s playing games with beats. He’s crisp and purposeful. He never uses any goofy accents, and he goes on a couple of positively head-spinning fast-rap rampages. He’s content to be Eminem, whatever that might mean in 2020.
Of course, being Eminem also means working in anti-PC provocateur punchlines, tired stuff like “I am the complete opposite of these retards who spit these weak bars.” It also means inviting Ed Sheeran to sing on a song about cartoonish strip-club misbehavior. It means putting out an endless chore of an album full of slow-trudge beats and people-getting-killed sound effects. (In naming the album after an old Alfred Hitchcock LP, and sampling Hitch’s voice, Em is clearly attempting to place himself in a long tradition of violent cinematic storytellers. I get it. But what’s Eminem’s Vertigo? “Stan”?)
I don’t see myself returning to Music To Be Murdered By much in the years ahead. Still, the Eminem of this album sounds present and focused. He seems to love rap music again. That’s something. And maybe if he continues in this direction, Eminem will finally return to making truly good music. That would be a real shock. That would be something that I’m not expecting.
1. Hoodlum – “Scam”
Remember when A$AP Rocky first emerged from the internet hinterlands, making music that sounded like a version of circa-2011 rap tropes that had been slightly warped, made into weird gallery fodder? It’s not quite the same thing, but I’m getting something similar from this young San Antonio rapper, whose take on 2020 rap is oblique enough to absorb me completely.
2. Pop Smoke – “Christopher Walking”
Last week, the same day that he released “Christopher Walking,” the fast-rising Brooklyn drill star Pop Smoke was arrested at JFK Airport for allegedly transporting a stolen Rolls Royce across state lines. The story isn’t that sensational: According to the police, some guy lent Pop Smoke a car to use in a music video, and he kept it instead. This is exactly the kind of dumb shit that always seems to get New York rappers sent away. Hopefully, that won’t happen here. Pop Smoke is too good at making strangely gummy, mournful, melodic versions of UK drill. He’s just exemplary at taking those soft, rumbling hums that people like Travis Scott love and making something urgent out of them. That doesn’t mean he should just get to keep borrowed luxury cars for eternity, but it means that I hope he gets to keep making songs like this for a while.
3. Pouya & Bobby Lootaveli – “Bitch, Park Backwards”
In which two Florida dirtbags do classic Bay Area styles with more panache than we should’ve ever thought possible. The previously-unknown-to-me Bobby Lootaveli eats what he wants; he’s attractive.
4. Bby Goyard – “Eurohouse Seance”
Bby Goyard is a face-tatted white kid currently making bizarre mutant dance-rap that sounds like house music that you’re hearing from the sidewalk outside the club. He’s signed to Travis Scott’s label. Shit’s going to get even weirder in 2020.
5. Sada Baby – “Say Whoop”
The obligatory Sada Baby inclusion is now tradition. It’s not a tokenistic thing, though. Sada Baby earns his spot every week. That scream he lets out at the end of the last verse — “Knuck! If you buck! If it’s stuck! Then it’s stuck with me! Damn!” — is simply magnificent.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
An underrated thing about Sada Baby is that in every music video he leaps up on a table like he was Beto at a diner filled with disinterested septuagenarians
— Otto Von Biz Markie (@Passionweiss) January 21, 2020