This past Friday, Eminem surprised fans and the world by dropping his 11th studio album Music To Be Murdered By. The cover art features Em in an Alfred Hitchcock like pose, with a suit and shovel setting the tone for the project. As the intro on “Little Engine” says, “This was meant for your listening pleasure while you’re being done in.”
One of the knocks on previous Eminem albums was their features. While he redeemed himself on Kamikaze, working with the likes of Joyner Lucas and Jessie Reyez, some fans questioned how one of the most dark and twisted rappers of all time could collaborate with Ed Sheeran (who makes his return on this project along with Skylar Grey). While Ed Sheeran and Eminem sound good together musically on “Those Kinda Nights”, and Ed Sheeran has been embraced by Hip-hop and Reggae almost to Justin Timberlake proportions (and will probably soon get a pass to use the word “Nigga”), this collaboration still seems off brand for Slim Shady.
Despite a few hiccups, including forgettable tracks like “Darkness”, the somewhat cheesy Alfred Hitchcock concept, and the lack of overall cohesiveness on the album, there are a lot of highlights.
Although some critics call Em’s music “rappidy rap”, or words put together without having anything to say, that wasn’t the case on this project. Right out the gate on “Premonition” Shady reminds us why he is considered by some to be the greatest lyricist of all time while addressing the topic of getting older in hip-hop. He also touches on the hypocrisy and contradictory demands of fans and critics.
“Once I was played in rotation
At every radio station
They said I’m lyrically amazing
But I have nothing to say
But then when I put out Revival and I had something to say
They said that they hated the awake me
I lose the rage, I’m too tame”
Then he hits us in the chest on “Stepdad – Intro” and “Stepdad” as he recalls childhood experiences of abuse from his stepfather. The skit is sudden and jarring, and might even bring a tear to your eye.
Another highlight is the features. Although Eminem sometimes gets knocked for his features as I noted earlier, he actually delivered some mouthwatering collaborations on this project.
The best feature on the whole project was fellow Dr. Dre protégé Anderson. Paak. The two fit together like a glove on the Dre-produced beat for “Lock It Up”.
We were also treated to some Young M.A. who rarely features on other artists’ tracks and rarely has features on her own songs. Although their styles don’t mesh well, they both delivered great individual verses. Em also played around with some different flows and showed why he’s still one of the best rappers on the planet.
Then there’s the lead single off the project, “Godzilla” featuring the recently deceased Juice WRLD which was one of the better collabs on the album. It has an old school West Coast vibe, a different sound for Eminem. He also does some crazy lyrical gymnastics, rapping so fast you can barely make out what he’s saying, but who cares? Em is a breath of fresh air in an era that emphasizes “vibes” over lyricism.
The most mouthwatering collab on the project has to be “Yah Yah” featuring Royce Da 5’9″, Black Thought and Q-Tip. Even though it’s not a boom bap track and you might have expected something more iconic from this ensemble, it’s still a great throwback with references to Ice Cube, Wutang and Slick Rick, and a sample from Busta Rhymes’ “Woo Hah! (Got You All In Check)”. For the hip-hop heads who grew up in the 90’s, this song transports you back to an era of watching Rap City after school and going to the record store to pick up that new cassette or record from the record store. Alongside the features from Don Tolliver and Juice WRLD, Em pays homage to the era of hip-hop he came up in while showing respect for what’s happening in hip-hop today. In the end, he doesn’t forget about the hip-hop heads who have been following him over the past few decades while staying relevant to a new generation.
Eminem even takes the time to call out Joe Budden as a traitor on “Yah Yah” before not including him on “I Will” alongside Slaughterhouse members Crooked I, Joelle Ortiz, and Royce Da 5’9″.
Now, fans are divided on Eminem’s latest offering. Anyone calling this project a masterpiece is wrong. But fans who are calling on Eminem to retire and stop making music are equally wrong. The fact that a 47 year-old Eminem is still delivering albums that are expected to be #1 in the United States deserves respect. Also, hip-hop needs its elder statesmen, and rappers like Jay-Z and Snoop both put out critically acclaimed albums in recent years as they approached 50 years old. As one of the top emcees of all time, Eminem is still capable of making music at a high level.
On the intro track Em says, “Bitch, if I was as half as good as I was, I’m still twice as good as you’ll ever be.” This is true. There aren’t any rappers of this current generation who can compare to Eminem as a rapper. But this is partly the problem. Although it’s unfair, when fans and critics express disappointment in the product Em puts out, it’s not in comparison to any rapper in the game today; it’s in comparison to who he was and how high he raised the bar in hip-hop.
Still, whether you’re judging Eminem against today’s standards or against his former self, Eminem is still relevant in 2020 and “Music To Be Murdered By” is still a solid project, which, alongside Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Snoop Dogg’s I Wanna Thank Me, continues to set the blueprint for how to age and mature gracefully in hip-hop.