has been one music’s hugest stars for more than two decades, yet over the years he’s increasingly taken on the tendencies the cult artist — the deepening sense embattled insularity, the hapless angst, the lack interest in the genre he once transformed. On his eleventh album, all the old enemies are present: the women who do him wrong, the family members who messed him up, the rappers you may or may not remember he has beefs with, the annoying fans, the haters, and, most importantly, the self-immolating man in the mirror. He savages them all with a virtuosity that now feels more like a cudgel than a gift, as if he’s leaning into the shredding-for-shredding’s-sake, Yngwie-Malmsteen–hip-hop accusations that have dogged his recent albums, particularly 2018’s confrontationally dreary Kamikaze. “Similes and idioms/Giddy up!” he demands on “Little Engine.” And they definitely do, at times to stunning effect, though the dervish humor and gremlin bounce that made his original silly-putty psycho shtick an American classic remain in relatively short supply.
He does seem to have thrown a little more intellectual, thematic, and emotional elbow grease into this record. The title Music to Be Murdered By alludes to a 1958 collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and film composer Jeffrey Alexander, and Hitchcock’s voice appears in segues throughout. Eminem piles on movie references, calling on everything from Reservoir Dogs to Rocky to 8 Mile. But no real concept, cinematic or otherwise, develops — unless “fuck me and fuck you too” is a concept, in which case this is a veritable Tommy. “Such a wide range emotions/Migraines, but why the fuck am I takin’ these Motrins?/Ibuprens, like a drop rain in the ocean/And you’re my fix on the days when I’m broken/But the shit’s about to go sideways, I just know it,” he raps on the dispirited “Never Lose Again,” one many examples his still-unimpeachable genius for dazzlingly ornamented lyrical decadence — the emotional paincave as Sistine Chapel.
Eminem has plenty dragons to slay on this 20-song, 64-minute set. First up: us. The Dr. Dre-produced, album-opening “Premonition” lashes out at the critics who haven’t liked his last two albums: “Rolling Stone stars, I get two and a half outta five, and I’ll laugh out loud/’Cause that’s what they gave B.A.D. back in the day.” The 2.5-star review LL Cool J’s 1987 album Bigger And Deffer that he’s evidently referencing comes from the 2004 print edition The Rolling Stone Album Guide, which isn’t online. But when it comes to airing out his grudges, no amount having to drive around Michigan looking for a Barnes & Noble will hold Eminem back. It’s the kind monkish attention to detail that bespeaks a true craftsman.
Musically, he gestures towards the current hip-hop world a little more intentionally than his hermetic-sounding albums have tended to in the recent past. The buoyant “Godzilla” features leftover verses from the recently departed emo rap icon Juice WRLD, serviceably sutured into Eminem rhyme clusters delivered in a rapid-fire blur that’s almost microtonal. Anderson .Paak lends his light Cali-soul growl over Dr. Dre’s springy beat on “Lock It Up”; the brutally mean-spirited breakup song “Farewell” has a lithe, reggae-tinged beat from Southern rap producer Ricky Racks. The best production moment is “Yah Yah,” a frenetically grinding, Busta Rhymes-sampling posse cut with Black Thought the Roots, Em’s Detroit buddies Royce da 5’9″ and Denaun D12, and Q-Tip soulfully singing the hook.
In a new lyrical wrinkle, Em steps into the role political commentator and protest voice, with mixed results. On the grueling, six-minute “Darkness,” the album’s most ambitious performance, he attempts to inhabit the mind the gunman responsible for the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that took 58 lives. His impulses are in the right place (the song’s intense video ends by imploring “When will it end?” and then asks people to register to vote). But the song itself doesn’t stretch much outside Eminem’s lyrical comfort zone: “If I bet you I’ll be in tomorrow’s paper, who would the odds favor?” he raps, placing the person responsible for the worst mass murder in U.S. history within the same needy-lonely-white-guy emotional valence as “Stan.”
Such a moment moral urgency, however muddled, also has the knock-on effect rendering other bits expected shock-rap fensiveness more glaringly uncomfortable. In the requisite evil ex screed “Farewell,” he plays ltily with the love-as-murder theme, comparing toxic romance to being “tethered together like felons,” but makes sure not to leave out the stomach-churning venom, calling his errant paramour a “little cunt.” And what’s with the lazily assholic endorsement strip club sexual harassment in “Those Kinda Nights,” an icky-horny collaboration with Ed Sheeran? Psychotic mass killers: You get a voice. Women working in strip clubs: Not so much.
The most egregious self-owning oversight on Music to Be Murdered By, especially in the context “Darkness,” is “Unaccommodating,” featuring fire-breathing Brooklyn rapper Young M.A. Eminem undercuts an impressively manic spree rhymes by tossing in a half-assed allusion to another concert tragedy: “I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game/Like I’m outside an Ariana Grande concert waiting.” Within hours its release, the song prompted a statement condemnation from the mayor Manchester. For Eminem, acknowledgements our shared humanity may occasionally happen in the abstract, but specific instances in his music are still hard to come by.