At 39 years old, I’m only eight years younger than Eminem. It hurts to date myself this way, but I graduated from high school in 1999, the year Eminem’s first studio album, The Slim Shady LP was released. The song “My Name Is” catapulted a then-27-year-old Marshall Bruce Mathers III into superstardom. He’s now a globally recognized brand who achieved levels of success few people (dead or alive) have.
Back then, Napster was barely a thing, and Eminem was among artists like N’Sync, Metallica, and Britney Spears who were the first generation of major-label artists who had to face the new world of online file sharing, much less streaming. It sounds quaint to think about, but an angry, white, blonde kid saying insane shit was once considered a novelty.
Now 47, however, Mathers has struggled to walk the line of the man he was then and the man he is now. The world has softened up in the social media age, and every time Em softens with us, he’s rejected. But even when he hits hard, he’s rejected. Somehow, Eminem never seems to have found the acceptance and respect he hoped for.
Don’t get me wrong – he’s truly a rap God, but Tupac Shakur was 25 when he died. Christopher Wallace was 24. Even Juice Wrld was only 21 when he passed away in 2019. They all died at a younger age than Mathers was when he became famous.
We’re all familiar with the story by now – Debbie, Kim, Hailie jade, Proof, etc. Even Em’s enemy list is quite public. But as he ages, a few of the cracks in Eminem’s public persona start to show their age. It’s something apparent in the media frenzy surrounding Music to Be Murdered By, a surprise 11th album from the rapper that dropped January 17, 2020. It features several homages to Alfred Hitchcock.
It follows in the wake of his surprise 2018 release of Kamikaze, the surprise album, and it starts with a surprise video about the 2017 Las Vegas massacre and an anti-gun message on his website. This is where the disconnect starts to occur, because it seems like he can’t figure out which side he’s on anymore.
Exploring the Darkness
No matter how hard he works to “surprise” us, Eminem’s music is pretty formulaic, if you know what to look for. Take his one dance/love/club song per album in his early years. We’ll call it his “for the ladies” track, and no matter how dark an album gets, Em always has a track for the ladies. For a while, it was track 13.
“Cum on Everybody” ft Dina Rae kicks it off in 1999. Rae sticks with that slot with “Drug Ballad” on his second album and “Superman” on his third. By Encore he was tired of the formula, but he did continue keeping that predictible track in each album for the ladies. “Beautiful” on Relapse, most of Recovery and Revival. He again falls into patterns and pairs with Rihanna and SKylar Grey several times, even fuck it, throw Ed Sheeran in the mix.
And all of these names of duets from his past are popping back up in Murder. Even Juice Wrld had a shot with Em before his death. The usual Royce pairing, a semi-Slaughterhouse, this album is an hour of Eminem doing the most formulaic and mechanical version of himself.
But is it any good?
Critics are mostly in agreement that he’s no longer relevant. It feels like the thing to say in a post-cancel culture society. Eminem says shocking things. He always has, and he’s still managing to be shocking over a decade after shock jocks like Howard Stern went soft. Someone like Jay-Z can get away with an occasional reference to the streets because it’s not an entire album. Even Lil Wayne could be as offensive as Eminem and it wouldn’t matter because he speaks slower and with a drawl.
I had to listen to this album in its entirety to say, I personally don’t see a difference. Eminem has as much touch in himself as he always has. Approaching 50, he still has his own unique taste in music that’s so far away from the club bangers you’re used to. He has the money and connections to keep his ear to the streets, and with his Shade 45 radio station on Sirius XM, he’ll remain a steady part of the hip-hop conversation well beyond the rest of his life.
He could easily retire, but to do what – rap in private?
This is what he does, and he does it well. He does it for the kids, and I’m sure I’m not the only adult male in my age range who’s checking it out. In fact, I’m almost positive there’s more of me than the kids.
And it is somewhat soothing, over 20 years later, for me to keep hearing Eminem rip into people. He pulls all the usual tricks. He’s playing all the same games and recruiting the same names. Much of the music is still corny. It’s never going to be played in the clubs.
“In Too Deep” – Em’s attempt to be romantic – is completely unlistenable by a woman. He’s using what sounds like a contorted 90’s R&B beat. His first partnership with Sheeran was already pushing it, so “Those Kinda Nights,” isn’t exactly a high point. We all get that Sheeran has money, but someone tell him to stop trying to be hip-hop.
The album does have highlights though. “Godzilla” with Juice Wrld is worth a replay. Listening to “Darkness” and “You Gon’ Learn,” though, I can’t help but wonder if he even understood what the term “mumble rap” meant in Kamikaze. Both songs qualify as mumble rap more than anything choppa Machine Gun Kelly does. It’s not surprising that Em is getting even further disconnected from pop culture.
But to call him irrelevant would be to not understand what Em is and always was. His songs were very rarely evergreen. With the length of his discography, it’s impossible to not find bangers, but a lot of the music I loved as a kid is filled with pop culture references that don’t make sense today. That’s why it’s hard to tell if Em has to make music or wants to anymore.
Whatever the case, it seems like he’s trying to ride too many weird lines of likability right now. He may not be the flavor of 2020. But either way, his failures are better than most people’s best shots. And it’s a reminder that he’s still around and hungry. This isn’t the best Eminem album, but you can bet it won’t be his last.
When Steven Tyler was 49 in 1997, he had just completed a decade-long comeback with his band Aerosmith. Maybe in another 20 years, we’ll see Eminem judging American Idol or selling out in some other way. But until then, he still has the ability to rap, and that means he still has some classic hits left in him.
None of them are found on this album though.
Final Grade: C-