Eminem review – Music to Be Murdered By Side B: The best thing he’s done in a long time

Eminem (Press)
Eminem (Press)

Eminem surprise-releasing albums is no longer a surprise. He did it with Kamikaze, the 2018 record that had him tussling with critics and fans alike. Recorded by a rapper with “nothing left to prove”, it lashed out at anyone bold enough to question his status in contemporary hip hop. Music to Be Murdered By (now Side A), which dropped at the beginning of this year, was a bloated mess of misfire collaborations and exploitative lyrics about terrorist attacks and gun culture.

The real surprise on Side B of Music to Be Murdered By is how good it is. While the first part of the record sounded bitter, full of resentment, Side B shows an artist learning how to relax and have fun in the studio again. As a result, many of the tracks demonstrate Eminem returning to the height of his powers.

As he says himself, he’s addicted to mischief. “Tone Deaf” is one of his better ripostes to critics that also pokes fun at his own flaws, bars dripping sarcasm over a cartoonish beat: “I'll be an old fart, but you don't want no part, so b****, don't start/ Simmer down, compose yourself, Mozart.” He was previously accused of being out of touch; now he namechecks Gen-Z artists and social events, suggesting he’s done his homework.

As with all Eminem albums, there are tired tropes he can’t bring himself to shake off. His favoured murder fantasy, complete with grisly John Carpenter-style sound effects, transpires on “Black Magic”, on which he beats up his girlfriend after she cheats on him, and eventually murders her. Having regular collaborator Skylar Grey add her airy vocals does nothing to soften the toe-curling violence. Fans might argue that Eminem’s been doing this for so long that they’re desensitised to it – that doesn’t mean it’s not still tedious as hell.

Eminem’s conflicted nature is what drives his best work’s thrilling unpredictability, but his torment over his legacy and public perception often leads to self-aggrandising. On 2017’s polarising album Revival, he tried to explore the pressures of fame on “Walk on Water”; Side B includes far more successful delves into his ego. “I’ve been around for a while now,” he muses on the intro for “Higher”, “Not sure if I have much left to prove… yeah I do.” What was once an attitude that suggested he had no obligation to put in the effort is now a fresh ambition to one-up himself.

On “Gnat”, an album standout, he references his knack for controversy with some phenomenal word play: “Ain't nothin' you say can ever Trump (Nah), mic, pencil get killed/ If you're hypersensitive, I wasn't referencin' the vice president, chill/ I mean my penmanship at times tends to get ill, violent but with skill/ That's why I hence when I write ends up with the mic and pencil gettin' killed.” He broadens his musical references; DJ Premiere’s presence on “Book of Rhymes” could explain the jazz influences – a mournful sax and punches of brass – on “Gnat”. Across the album, the beats are sharper, more refined. Closer “Discombobulated” serves as the exception, but it works: the track is a hyped-up throwback with squelchy beats, and Eminem mock-despairing over the PC culture he finds himself wading through.

Of course, Eminem is incapable of moving past old grudges, seemingly going after Mariah Carey and her Lego Movie cameo (“What rhymes with pariah? I don’t know. Mm, uh, LEGO?”). On “Zeus”, though, he offers an apology to Rihanna over the leak of a 2009 track in which he sided with Chris Brown over the former couple’s assault case. “These Demons” gets more identity conflict off his chest – “I want you to change but don’t change/ Want you to grow up but don’t age… man they keep moving the goal posts, don’t they” – but also goes after behaviour he’s witnessed during the pandemic: “We need to reopen America / Black people dying, they want equal rights / White people wanna get haircuts.”

It’s not entirely clear why Eminem chose to release this album as a Side B on Music to Be Murdered By, when it’s so ludicrously superior to the first part. This is an album that spurns straight-up cruelty in favour of sharp and often self-deprecating wit; each track requires a return to pick up on the minute details. It’s the best thing Eminem’s done in a long time.

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