The core of what a writer does, in general, is developing a thesis and then defending it for some reason. Maybe that reason is to inform the audience about a subject or it’s to convince the audience to agree with the writer’s point of view. In general, most writers do this across mediums and genres; screenwriters, poets, essayists, journalists, and even songwriters typically try to explain a worldview or change an audience member’s mind about an opinion. Listening to Eminem’s latest album, the middle-of-the-night surprise release Music To Be Murdered By, begs the question: What is his thesis? What is he trying to say? And does he say it effectively, in a way that gets his point across so that anyone could repeat it back, like a student answering a teacher’s questions from their textbook?
If that intro feels a little elementary and rote, it’s because I wanted to reflect back the way I felt listening to yet another 20-song diatribe railing against critics’ reasonable criticisms of Eminem’s last few works. It felt like someone explaining to me how to do my job. I’m sure he feels the same way. And so here we are, locked in an endless waltz in which the only ensured outcome is that a lot of people will spend a lot of words trying to convince the other side to do something they’re never going to do: agree. Honestly, it’s exhausting.
It’s fair to say that I’m not an Eminem fan per se, but nor am I an Eminem hater, as I’ve so often been accused. Eminem is, to me, like rain on a cloudy day: Never really all that surprising and only occasionally unpleasant enough to get worked up over — which is mostly when I have to wade into the wet. The new album is fine. After about three cycles worth of dealing with the deluge of “please like me” bars and the blustering of his way-too-invested fans, I feel a little more sympathetic to his plight, but I’m still not impressed and it still doesn’t feel like he’s found anything worthwhile to say.
If anything, he’s run into kind of a new conundrum on Music To Be Murdered By because whenever he tries to make a concession to modernity, the end result is usually a tonal inconsistency that sees him trying to heed the needs of the beats more but still getting stuck trying to be Eminem, The Rap God. For instance, on “Those Kinda Nights,” although he takes a serviceable swing at crowd-pleasing club bop, his seemingly pathological need to prove his rap chops pretty much breaks a song that doesn’t need him to.
Within the song, his ping-ponging rap pattern and insistence on rhyming every other metronome count makes it feel a little too rap nerdy to work as a pop song, while Ed Sheeran’s presence on the chorus undermines its value as a display of lyrical wizardry. Em employs goofy voices throughout his story of a night out and also brings back the hashtag flow for a punchline comparing road fellatio to a certain masked EDM producer, the mileage of which may vary depending on your tolerance for rap dad jokes (there are lots to be found throughout the album). It’s not quite fun no matter which side of my brain I approach it with — the 14-year-old backpacker who loved battle rap or 34-year-old critic whose club days are past him.
Then there’s “Darkness,” which masquerades as a message song but never takes the extra step to ensure its message is understood. If Eminem can spend however many hours or days to think up the labyrinthine rhyme patterns and cadences that he does, surely he can spare five minutes to think about how to make those connect with a solid stance on gun control or whatever it was he was trying to accomplish here. Instead, he comes off wishy-washy, trying to serve two sides while remaining resolutely in the middle, offering up both a macabre murder fantasy of the sort he wallowed in early in his career, while halfheartedly gesturing toward a stance of “wokeness” to appease his critics — a stance that would hold up better if he hadn’t been joking about the Manchester bombings just six tracks earlier on “Unaccommodating.”
I won’t even get into the “outrage” portion of the critique, because that’s exactly what Eminem wants and how he’s kept his name buzzing, which to him amounts to relevance and to me amounts to a desperate gimmick to force music outlets to keep his name in the conversation. He’s three years from fifty. He’s still doing toilet cherry bomb gags for attention. Yawn. The album does pick up when he remembers that he’s technically in a position to be something of a rap elder statesman alongside fellow vanguards like Black Thought and Q-Tip on “Yah Yah” or shepherding future stars of the genre as he does on “No Regrets” with Don Toliver or “Godzilla” with Juice WRLD.
But again, his tendency to try to snatch the spotlight for himself with tasteless gags and insistence that he doesn’t get enough respect works against him when he works with others. He’s now 0/2 when rapping next to Black Thought, who makes this rap thing look easy and effortless in comparison. And “Godzilla” is the prime example of what’s so frustrating about latter-day Eminem. On a technically breathtaking third verse, he hits warp speed nine — only to go nowhere in an effort to… prove how fast he can rap, I guess. We already know he can rap fast. It’s a trick that sort of shows how much more road there is behind him than ahead.
He deserves credit for being able to rap as fast as he does for as long as he does but he’s not saying anything. It’s not the innovation he’s counting on his defenders believing that it is — rappers have been showing off such dynamite feats of breath control and speed for literal decades as Busdriver, Gift Of Gab, Tech N9Ne, and Twista have all done it and arguably better. The trick does put Eminem in a rare class of MCs but aside from being nifty it won’t really impress the “real hip-hop heads” his supporters profess themselves to be, mainly because longtime rap fans have seen this before and because the lack of substance behind the words (“Every bit of me’s the epitome of a spitter when I’m in the vicinity…”) strips the moment of its impact.
Nobody ever said dense, complex, high-level lyricism has to be unappealing to a pop sensibility, but it’s always been paired with some sort of thematic consistency — both within each individual song and the projects as a whole. Look at Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, or T.I. — they dominated the same era Eminem did with feats of bombastic lyricism but also with a willingness to concede to progress or to take the reins and drive the culture toward its next evolution. They didn’t keep retreading the same off-kilter beats. I’d even argue that if many of the levers of the publicity engine that drives discussion of the culture in the hands of the people who actually create the culture, we’d see as much or more discussion of those veteran rappers instead.
But controversy sells, so Eminem keeps throwing out shock value raps. He keeps trying to hijack the spotlight from artists who rightfully deserve it, only grudgingly bestowing his blessing on artists who meet his narrow criteria or who he thinks can rejuvenate his buzz. It’s ironic that his surprise release stepped on the release weekend for Mac Miller’s much-more forward-thinking posthumous album Circles, because it seems Eminem himself is locked into his own endless cycle of acting out for attention, the getting mad when it’s not the attention he wants, refusing to grow up after two decades at the forefront of the hip-hop discourse. The really frustrating part is he has the chops to do so much better than this but maybe he’s too set in his ways to ever really try.
Music To Be Murdered By is out now via Interscope. Get it here.