What did we want out of a new Marshall Mathers album? What did we expect? Two writers discuss.
Rob Harvilla: That loud droning noise you heard on Friday morning, Justin, was the sound of thousands of culture editors groaning in unison when they learned that Eminem had surprise-dropped a new album, Music to Be Murdered By, and yeah, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that, as I’m pretty sure you were groaning too. Music to Be Murdered By is indeed inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, a.k.a. “Uncle Alfred,” and in the interest of starting off with something positive, this 20-second video of Em stepping into a middle-finger-brandishing Hitchcockian silhouette is honestly very funny, and indeed much funnier than anything that transpires on the hour-plus-long album it’s promoting, and yeah, sorry, this turned into more of a negative thing.
Topics on this record include infidelity (pro), Eminem’s stepfather (anti), drug abuse (both pro and anti), strippers (pro physically but anti spiritually), and Eminem’s thoughts on his rapping ability (pro) as compared to anyone else’s (anti). In what has become a hallowed tradition, he complains about the poor reviews inspired by his previous surprise-dropped new album, summer 2018’s Kamikaze, and indeed my favorite reaction to this new album so far is this Twitter thread of Rolling Stone editors trying to figure out why Em is suddenly irate about a 33-year-old RS review of LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer that isn’t even online.
I’m stalling because I don’t want to talk about “Darkness,” Music to Be Murdered By’s lead single, even though it is designed to be the only thing anyone talks about. “Darkness” is driven by a slow and morose interpolation of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and is rapped from the perspective of a mass shooter. Specifically, the mass shooter who in 2017 killed 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.
Em at least pretends, in his first few verses, that this is not immediately obvious, that he’s just rapping as himself nervous backstage before a show, his double entendres ranging from “Fuck the Colt 45, I’ma need somethin’ stronger” to “Alcohol on my breath as I reach for the scope” to “I’m locked and loaded for rapid-fire spittin’ for all the concertgoers.” Then the shooting and screaming and TV-news-reporting starts, and “Darkness” reveals itself to be a gun-control morality play with, crucially, no moral:
But if you’d like to know the reason why I did this
You’ll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea
I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness
Just tryin’ to show ya the reason why we’re so fucked
’Cause by the time it’s over, won’t make the slightest difference
Then Em-as-the-shooter kills himself. The “Darkness” video ends with a direct appeal to register to vote so as to “make your voice heard and help change gun laws in America”; Eminem’s website links to various gun control and victim-advocacy websites. But the total experience of “Darkness,” the queasy quasi-Hitchcockian fakeout of it all, can’t help but feel exploitive and gross: a shrug emoji armed to the teeth. So how’d you take it? Were you shocked? Moved? Appalled? Exhausted? Does this gesture strike you as well meaning if a little (or a lot) inept, or is he just trolling?
Justin Sayles: Rob, this culture editor is exhausted and borderline offended that Eminem evoked Hitchcock for his slasher-flick-grade musings. Nearly 20 years have passed since a younger (but not all that young) Slim Shady used the Columbine shooting as a punch line on “I’m Back.” Far be it from me to say that people, even the author of “Just Lose It,” can’t grow over the course of two decades, but it’s hard to take “Darkness” seriously as a PSA when he later raps, “I am the Santa Fe, Mandalay, and Orlando, and Colorado, and Columbine / All combined into one.” It also rings a bit hollow because of the timing: He released two albums in between the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting and Music to Be Murdered By. Why make this song now? Does he actually care? I’m doubtful. Positioning “Darkness” as an anti-gun-violence screed feels like a clumsy retcon, like if he recited the number for a domestic violence hotline on the outro of “Kim.”
I’d be tempted to say the video was an attempt to quell any potential controversy if he wasn’t actively courting it elsewhere on Music to Be Murdered By. Earlier in the album, on the Young M.A–assisted “Unaccommodating,” Eminem makes a reference to the 2017 Ariana Grande concert bombing in Manchester, which killed 23 people including the perpetrator. He’s rightfully catching backlash, but what’s one more backlash in a career full of them? Everything from the Sharon Tate murder to Richard Ramirez is still fair game for Em. (Just be thankful there are no “Christopher Reeves” references this time.)
So: Will this just be the Marshall Mathers experience for the rest of time? In three years, will a 50-year-old Eminem still be making JonBenét Ramsey jokes?
Harvilla: Yeah, the Santa Fe–Mandalay-Orlando-Colorado-Columbine line is when I cringed the hardest. It comes on “Yah Yah,” a deep-ish cut that otherwise represents the best Music to Be Murdered By has to offer, and in fact represents the platonic ideal of the Marshall Mathers experience for the rest of time, in that it’s just an aging but still supremely gifted rapper rapping his ass off with his (usually) supremely gifted pals. (Royce Da 5’9”, Black Thought, Q-Tip, and Denaun, in this case.) “Yah Yah” is grimy and abrasive and obnoxious and makes no concession to rap music in the 21st century, and I kind of love it right up to the point where Em starts reeling off gun-violence atrocities.
To be even mildly offended by an Eminem line in 2020 is to be triggered/trolled/pawned into oblivion; the Mandalay callback doesn’t crack the top 200 most offensive things he’s said in even the past 10 years. I am deadlier than a mass shooting is, indeed, tired rap-braggadocio boilerplate. But given the “Darkness” framing, the mere suggestion that he has Something Important to Say about any of this, it is doubly dismaying to look on as Em reels off two decades’ worth of national tragedies with no insight to offer and nothing to even compare those tragedies to other than himself.
I would vastly prefer to regard Music to Be Murdered By as simply another pretty stupid but basically harmless late-Eminem excursion, the rapping often stupendous or at least hilariously dense and very fast, the conceits often very stupid to a degree that is almost impressive. (I do appreciate, as a native and current Ohioan, the string of Ohio-based puns unleashed on the Ed Sheeran–assisted stripper jam “Those Kinda Nights”—“We should be datin’ / She’s from Cleveland / But she’s a Bengal / This chick is catty”—but the fact remains that “Those Kinda Nights” is an Ed Sheeran–assisted stripper jam.) The world needs a safe space in which Joell Ortiz can make an A Fish Called Wanda reference, or at least Joell Ortiz does, and who am I to object? But the fact remains that Eminem has nothing to say about life in 2020 and gets less tolerable the more he insists that he does. At least he’s given up trying to troll Trump. (For now.)
The unpleasant truth is that the best albums made by Rappers of a Certain Age in the last five years or so—Jay-Z’s 4:44 or A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, for example—are specifically borne of trauma, or at least public calamity I wouldn’t wish on anybody, ever. To root for Eminem to really matter again is to root for something terrible to happen, to him personally if not to everyone. “Darkness” seems to realize this, but in execution it also strongly suggests he’s too self-absorbed to be up to whatever task our dystopian future might set for him. (It’s not Em’s fault, industry-timing-wise, but Murder makes for an awful contrast with Mac Miller’s posthumous Circles, also released Friday, and as tender and empathetic as Murder is callow and hostile.)
What do you want from Eminem now? What does anyone want? What would his 4:44 equivalent even look or sound like? Do we even risk imagining a future day so horrific that we require Marshall Mathers to save it?
Sayles: Mr. Ohio, we are in firm agreement that the best part of Music to Be Murdered By, despite the aforementioned lines, is “Yah Yah,” which includes Black Thought stomping through a verse, Royce channeling both Das EFX and Juelz Santana, and a sample from “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” that makes this song almost as hype as Busta Rhymes’s original. It raises the question of why Eminem has never attempted a back-to-basics album enlisting Golden Age producers and features, and it makes the absence of recent Shady Records signees Griselda here baffling. (Though it bears mentioning that Em’s domineering appearance on Griselda’s “Bang (Remix)” last year felt out of place on an otherwise excellent, chilly street-rap album.)
Part of me wonders, however, whether anyone outside of the Lacrosse Bros would accept a project in which Eminem goes full “Rap God.” He’s released three albums since December 2017, but no song or verse he’s written in that time frame has defined him as much Chris D’Elia’s “you’re using too many napkins” parody, which turned a onetime punch line master officially into a punch line. There’s also the fact that all the technical wizardry can become oppressive: There have been few rappers able to bend syllables and rhyme schemes to their will like Eminem has, but in 2020, he wields those skills like a drill bit too big for the screw, spinning around aimlessly and stripping the metal. Rob, for most of my time listening to Music to Be Murdered By, I felt like the screw.
The idea of Eminem making a 4:44 is intriguing, but is it even possible for him to do? Part of what made Jay-Z’s mea culpa a success was his vulnerability. Jay opened up about his shortcomings as a husband and the totality of his life. It was as raw as he’s ever been on wax, but there were earlier moments in his catalog, like “You Must Love Me” or certain songs on the first two Blueprints, that made 4:44 feel like a natural evolution. I’m not sure Eminem has ever fully let his guard down (though I have to admit to skipping over most of Recovery and Relapse; I wasn’t a culture editor then, sue me). Sure, he’s processed plenty of trauma in his lyrics, but “Stepdad” would seem to indicate he still isn’t able to advance beyond “murder-revenge fantasy.” “Never Love Again,” which boasts production reminiscent of No I.D.’s work on 4:44, feels profound at first, but it ultimately reveals itself to be another surface-level depiction of Em’s struggles with addiction. A truly fresh Eminem album would grapple with what he’s wrought and his place in music history, but does he want to do that? He seems content (or something like it) complaining about bad reviews and Machine Gun Kelly.
But, Rob, it’s our job to think about these things. The fact is, Music to Be Murdered By will almost certainly debut at no. 1 ahead of Mac Miller. Em’s a niche artist at this point, though it’s a loud niche that will gladly take a break from yelling over Xbox Live to yell at us for what we’ve said here. I guess my question is, does Eminem matter in the mainstream sense at this point, or just to his fans and us, people assigned to write about these types of things? And what did he ever mean?
Harvilla: It is indeed bizarre that if anything, Eminem is underrated at this point as a mainstream force: When Music to Be Murdered By hits the charts it will be his 10th consecutive no. 1 debut, breaking the all-time record. He’s currently tied with, uh, Kanye West, which certainly feels, uh, apt: It simply does not matter what critics say about either of these dudes either on a project-by-project basis or in a macro Does This Dude Still Matter way. The numbers don’t lie; 325,000 album-equivalent units can’t be wrong. So what do his armies of superfans see and hear and feel that the rest of us don’t?
Maybe the guard-down vulnerability, although I can’t really find it on this record either. A line like “I sell like 4 mil’ when I put out a bad album / Revival flopped, came back, and I scared the crap out ’em” is theoretically refreshing in its candor: There is some sense of quality control here, some sense of wonder that people are always buying (or at least streaming) no matter what he’s selling. But you’re right that the only emotional difference between 27-year-old Eminem and 47-year-old Eminem is the depth of bitterness and the degree of entitlement. (The term white privilege does indeed come up on Murder, but his thoughts are not exactly enlightening.)
The most vulnerability I have ever heard from Eminem was back in 2017 when he was trying, and failing, to start a flame war with Trump: As Em told Vulture’s David Marchese, “I want him to answer me because I got ideas for all kinds of shit to say back to him if he does.” That naked please-be-offended-by-me desperation, while of course central to the Eminem brand from the very beginning, is a hell of a thing for him to articulate so, well, nakedly. I am very relieved that battle royal didn’t come to pass. (Yet.) But it reinforces the idea that Em’s only at his best when he’s got a worthy adversary, and he’s stuck in a rage-spiral loop without one.
One way to describe the experience of being alive in 2020 is that it’s like living in a never-ending Eminem song: the fury, the blasphemy, the despair, the taunting, the self-aggrandizing megalomania, the impenetrably dense waves of punishing information. We’re certainly living in a world he helped build, and I can abstractly appreciate his attempts, even in fairly disastrous songs like “Darkness,” to reckon with any of that. But with all due respect to those 325,000 album-equivalent units, if it’s true that it’s Eminem’s world and we’re just living in it, what do we need another Eminem album for?