On ‘Music To Get Murdered By – Side B,’ Eminem Offers Peerless Skill but No New Sides of Himself
It’s tough to discuss Eminem as a white hip-hop fan without getting personal. If you’ve spent five or ten or thirty years exploring the most vital Black musical movement of the modern era, Marshall Mathers functions as a sort of canary in the coal mine of your reasons for loving it. When he debuted in 1999, he was far from the first white rapper to claim a stake on the pop charts, or earn legitimate critical praise, and he was the first to acknowledge the Black giants on whose shoulders he stood. But where his undeniable skill instantly catapulted him to the top ranks of the genre’s all-time best emcees, his music and especially his subject matter relegated him to a realm of suburban white anger that vacillated between puerile and potentially dangerous, particularly opposite a Black perspective that deserved to be spotlighted. And if validating self-generated feelings of disenfranchisement and victimization for an exceptionally well-represented and catered-to segment of the listening population felt a little unhealthy then, two decades later it’s not just irresponsible, but a waste of his talent.
“Music To Get Murdered By” was released without warning on Jan. 17, 2020, just like its 2018 predecessor “Kamikaze,” and eleven months later he follows it up with “Music to Be Murdered By — Side B,” another full album of cuts that evidence his peerless skill and his absolute inability to grow up. To some degree Eminem can’t win for losing, risking becoming boring if he turns his attention to more grown up topics, or repetitive if he doesn’t. But this expansion / sequel to his 2020 release only underscores the corner into which he’s painted himself as hip-hop’s button-pushing enfant terrible while exuding an ability and an intellect too sophisticated to repeat the same stale grievances he’s rapped about for years.
Picking up on the theme of “Side A” and utilizing more samples from the Alfred Hitchcock album “Music to Be Murdered By,” “Side B” kicks off with “Premonition,” where Eminem explains the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation in which he finds himself at the age of 48, and more than 20 years into his career. “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 / I get it back, they say I’m too angry,” he raps with the rapid-fire delivery that made him such a magnetic presence on the microphone. It’s a fair response, but it’s probably more important just to recognize that what Eminem talks about on his records has almost always been less important than how he talks about it, and take that into consideration as he reminds you of beefs that the rest of the world has certainly moved on from (Machine Gun Kelly, Mariah Carey) and uses pop culture references that are at best distasteful (“They wanna JonBenét me” on the chorus to “Unaccommodating,” after referencing the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing in a verse).
Meanwhile, frequent collaborator Royce Da 5’9” offers a case study in how to explore more complex subjects in provocative, smart ways on “You Gon’ Learn,” rapping about his own mental health and poverty-related upbringing before Eminem offers a comparatively familiar story of his own poor, bitter childhood that evolves simultaneously into a fugitive-from-justice fantasy and some halfhearted acknowledgment that he feels responsible for the imitators who sprung up in the wake of his success — and kind of hates them. It’s this restlessness in his new material that keeps it from landing in any substantial way; while his writing and performance is clean and precise, the ideas behind it never coalesce into more than ambient feelings of anger, or meanness. To be fair, that makes a track like “Those Kinda Nights” a bit of a future classic, as he turns a club track (complete with a chorus by Ed Sheeran) into a messy celebration of bad behavior with his D12 crew; but by comparison, “Darkness” draws a parallel between his performances on stage and Stephan Paddock, perpetrator of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, simultaneously elevating him and trivializing a deadly act of mass murder.
Perhaps a better question to ask is not just what intrigues him by these incidents and that point of view, but why he hasn’t outgrown them — or learned anything — since the days when he was dumping his ex-girlfriend Kim’s body in a lake on “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” It’s possible that he’s simply mining old glories to satisfy his audience and stay in the news cycle, but if you’ve grown up listening to his music, it’s kind of a bummer to discover that he hasn’t. Toxicity has become his brand, and it’s metastasized in his music; that might have been unique in hip-hop when he was 28, but now it’s just sad, repetitive, and most of all not fun to listen to. He’s always maintained an appetite for slow, melancholy instrumentals, but that musical sameness sets a tone that gives his songs a “timelessness” — meaning, you can’t quite tell which album or era they’re from — and makes a lot of them run together.
“Godzilla” featuring late rapper Juice WRLD is a notable exception, a rare example of Eminem not just working with a Soundcloud-era chart-topper but adapting to a more contemporary musical style. The contrast between his wordplay and the singsong-y rambling of most rappers in the generation that followed him is striking enough, but hearing it in a musical context that’s more theirs than his gives his sound new, interesting life. He delivers one of the fastest verses of his career on the song, and for a second, he sounds revitalized, absolutely destroying the track with his wordplay as uncomplicated synths and 808 beats bump beneath him. It’s genuinely exhilarating. But then he returns to mopey confessional self-pity on “Leaving Heaven,” and the moment is over; as he describes his journey back from being thrown “in the deep end,” he swims to the shallow end for a few more quick victory laps, bitter and celebratory in the equal measures that have become synonymous with his worldview.
With a chorus that samples Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-hah! Got You All In Check,” “Yah Yah” offers another highlight, though perhaps because of the roster of guests (Royce Da 5’9”, Black Thought, Q-Tip and dEnAun) that appear on its trip down ‘90s rap memory lane. “Stepdad” recounts his and his mother’s (and their poor dog’s) abuse at the hands of his stepdad; it’s a great example of his storytelling abilities, less so of his personal growth. “Marsh” offers another “Eminem so crazy” tour as he chronicles his feelings of anxiety and rage, then redirects them at women, other emcees, and the rest of the world. But “Never Love Again” evidences the way that his innate cleverness and just a little bit of cleverness can come together to explore something interesting in a unique way: using a complicated romantic relationship as a metaphor for his substance abuse issues, he touches on something that actually feels honest and means something more than that firehose of capital-f feelings he unleashes everywhere else. With longing, humility, bittersweet appreciation, and an unflattering clarity, he admits how badly he needs this “relationship,” how it’s been a helpful crutch and a debilitating distraction. It might be the track from which his army of Slim Shadies (and anyone listening closely) can learn the most.
Ultimately, Eminem is in something of a no-win situation, so it’s hard not to sympathize with him even if there’s nothing about his angry white teenager perspective you can relate to — at least not any more. But there are still vestiges of greatness in his work now even if broadly what he’s doing is something that should have been passed to those successors, and even imitators. There’s almost no one on his level with the ability to create specific, vivid imagery; and nobody else better or more believably encapsulates adolescent rage. But maybe it’s time to quit aiming that mean, mischievous point of view at pop culture’s low hanging fruit, and start looking at his perspective and position as an elder statesman who could educate his younger colleagues and listeners through all of that misplaced, pointless emotion. Or maybe not; clearly it’s supplied him with a steady stream of ideas, and consistent commercial success. But ultimately “Music to Be Murdered By — Side B” feels too much like more of the same — not just of “Side A” but everything he’s offered for more than two decades — as much a bookend to Eminem’s 2020 as to his entire career, and a reminder that the best and sometimes only way to stop cycles of unhealthy behavior is to stop validating them.
“Music to Be Murdered By — Side B” releases Dec. 18 on Apple Music.