Upon perusing the tracklist for the recently released “B-side” version of Eminem’s 2020 surprise album Music To Be Murdered By, you might be tempted to press play on the track titled “Book Of Rhymes” on account of the fact it’s produced by luminary beatmaker DJ Premier. If you care at all about the legacies of either hip-hop elder statesman, I strongly advise against this course of action. I personally made that mistake and had to go listen to Da Ruckus’ “We Shine” to remind myself why I ever liked the rapper in the first place, followed by a full-on Gang Starr playlist so I could hear a rapper sound like they actually appreciated having the legendary producer bless the beat they rhymed on. But, a little persistence pays off on this one. Read on.
After rumors of a deluxe version of the already gargantuan album circulated online for nearly eleven months, it finally arrived to smash any glimmer of hope that just maybe one rapper would resist the siren call of an unnecessary reissue this year. After all, if anyone could survive 2020’s industry shutdown without taking a major loss, it should be Eminem, one of the most successful and handsomely-paid artists to pick up a mic. Considering how dense and tough-to-digest he considers his mouthy wordplay on the surprise album, you’d think he would want to give fans a little more time to chew on it before bonking them over the head with another full hour of tightly-packed double entendres.
But alas, here we are, once again offered a sumptuous, utterly rich meal of endlessly complex rhyme riddles to unravel despite still being gorged on the last one. I’ll give it this; it’s more consistent and cohesive with the theme of the original work than perhaps any other deluxe version to drop this year, with the exception of Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake add-on, LUV Vs. The World 2. Where that deluxe edition felt of a piece with its predecessor — perhaps owing to its fortuitous, next-week timing — so too does Music To Be Murdered By feel like a collection of songs that belongs on the original, rather than a series of tacked-on, salvaged cutting room floor tidbits.
The 16 tracks are kicked off with another Alfred Hitchcock sample dubbing them “music to be buried by,” and it’s, well, apt in more ways than one, as it befits Eminem’s gift for double meanings. Sure, Side B is a fitting postscript, or perhaps even sequel, to the original MTBMB, but it’s also just as suffocating as being buried alive. The metaphors and shock value raps and puns and complaints about mumble rap pile up until the listener is basically crushed under the weight of Em’s near constant-harping on the same subjects he always does and has since 2017’s Revival. He’s the angry, angsty teen who grew up into a similarly angry, crotchety dad, yelling at his kid about looking slovenly while missing the mustard stain on his own shirt.
Great rhymes, mediocre beats, and stale content are Side B’s trademarks, along with, of course, the pre-emptive strike at anyone audacious enough to ask for more on the aforementioned “Book Of Rhymes.” On “Black Magic” with Skylar Grey, he again fantasizes about murdering an ex-lover. He builds up an eight-bar set-up to a one-liner about being the “rap god” again on “Alfred’s Theme.” He raps over a Casio keyboard default rhythm on “Tone Deaf” (get it? get it? DO YOU GET IT?). He again lampshades his prior offensive shenanigans to undermine critics’ legit complaints on “Favorite Bitch” with Ty Dolla Sign — another utterly misplaced feature.
One of those features catches a stray on “Guns Blazing,” where he calls down rappers who utilize ghostwriters — on a track with Dr. Dre, whose last true solo hit single was written by Jay-Z. I imagine one, the other, or both were staring very intently at the mixing levels at the monitors during playback so as to avoid a knowing glance that would have short-circuited every synapse in both their brains. On “Gnat,” which at least has a modern-sounding beat, he spits a half-dozen coronavirus references in the space of as many bars, references a two-year-old rap beef he ostensibly won, and on “Higher,” he goes back to 2009 — again — with a plodding beat that sounds like the soundtrack to every post-apocalyptic war movie ever made at once.
About halfway through the album, we finally encounter a highlight. “These Demons” kinda bangs, and if Em had done a whole album like this — a much shorter one — this could have been a truly enjoyable album. He even gets topical in a more meaningful way than just sprinkling COVID references everywhere like anti-maskers sneezing in a grocery store. “This pandemic got us in a recession / We need to reopen America,” he reports. “Black people dyin’, they want equal rights / White people wanna get haircuts.” This is an astute summation of the situation and bears exegesis — an entire album’s worth, if possible. Em claims his pen skills are unrivaled by any other writer’s in rap, so personally, I’d be fascinated to see if they are equal to addressing real-life situations worth exploring rather than imagined slights from Twitter trolls.
“Zeus,” the track that seems to be drawing the most buzz for the album, is more or less the apotheosis of Side B, and the track that highlights everything it does wrong — and right. It’s got a strong beat courtesy of Luca Mauti and T-Minus, a solid chorus from White Gold (a sub-theme could be, “Why Eminem should stop doing his own hooks”), and an earnestness that bolsters its directionality. It points to something that isn’t just “I’m the best rapper and should never be criticized under any circumstances ever” or “Gee, I hate women so much. One lady did me wrong once and now I fantasize about murdering them all constantly.” He starts off in these places, yes, even opening the track with a complaint that someone compared him to Tekashi 69 — who, ironically, is only around because aggrieved old heads keep bringing him up.
But then, he does a thing on the track that I and so many other people wish he’d do in real life. He grows. He changes. He learns. He finds something to care about outside his solipsistic obsession with being universally loved. He warns his successors — Drake, Chance The Rapper, Future, Migos — that fame and love are temporary. He reminds listeners that he overcame a life of intense abuse, neglect, and self-sabotage to earn his 11-year sobriety chip. And he acknowledges and accepts — if only for a moment — the critiques we’ve leveled at him for so many years. “They keep wantin’ me to rap responsibly,” he confesses. “When I’m constantly passin’ the buck like the fuckin’ Dollar Tree / But I’ma always remind you that I came from poverty / Black people saved my life, from the Doc and Deshaun, and all that we want is racial equality.”
Hallelujah, pass the popcorn. Even though the verse ends ambiguously and seemingly refocusing inward, it feels like maybe, quite possibly, Em might be working his way toward realizing that his platform means something. It’s a baby step. But it’s in the right direction. Hopefully, Slim Shady is finally getting enough of making music to murder his demons and making up his mind to set about dismantling those of the world. That tiny glimmer of hope? Consider it provisionally, begrudgingly restored.