The last time we encountered Marshall Mathers III – on 2018’s Kamikaze, an album that arrived, like its successor, entirely without warning – he seemed to be in the process of repositioning himself. Hip-hop’s former enfant terrible, a man who made a career out of saying things that even his most nihilistic peers would consider beyond the pale, had reinvented himself as rap’s grumpy dad, baffled and horrified at what the genre had become. He spent most of Kamikaze carrying on like rap’s answer to Bagpuss curmudgeon-in-chief Professor Yaffle, forever rolling his eyes and tutting and telling the mice on the mouse organ that they were doing it all wrong and their face tattoos looked stupid. Listening to a man in his late 40s complaining about the youngsters’ taste in music is seldom terribly edifying, but he gave it his best shot, deploying all the technical skill he once used to make saying the worst things imaginable sound like the most exciting thing in the world on rubbishing Lil Pump and Charlamagne Tha God.
In fact, perhaps he gave it too good a shot: the most immediately striking thing about its follow-up is that it features the sound of Slim Shady apologising, something that would have once seemed no more likely than Eminem releasing an album of earnest acoustic love ballads or being appointed secretary of the interior. But there it is, a mea culpa for “misplacing my anger” and saying “dumb shit” about Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, both of whom he attacked, the former with a homophobic slur, on Kamikaze. “I shoulda just aimed for the fake ones and traitorous punks,” he admits, adding, very Eminem-ishly, that said nameless fakes and traitorous punks are “cunts” who “can get fucked with 800 motherfucking vibrators at once”.
The fact that this comes in the middle of a track called No Regrets indicates the confusion at the heart of Music to Be Murdered By, an album that speaks loudly and regularly about Emimen’s struggle to find his place within today’s hip-hop landscape and adjust to life on the admittedly multi-million-selling sidelines. “Once I was played in rotation at every radio station,” he protests on opener Premonition. “Instead of us being credited for longevity and being able to keep it up this long at this level, we get told we’ll never be what we were.” What to do? Take on board developments in the genre, slather on the Auto-Tune and offer your benediction to younger artists by way of guest slots? Mock developments in the genre and angrily reassert your bona fides, with the accompanying implicit suggestion that things have gone steadily downhill since your days as middle America’s favourite folk devil? Music to Be Murdered By does both, finding room for features from Young MA and the recently deceased Juice WRLD alongside suggestions that their contemporaries can’t rap properly (“They can’t even figure out where their words should hit the kick and the snare”) and Yah Yah. The latter is a musically thrilling whirlwind of electronic noise and a veritable bonanza of 90s nostalgia: its hook sampled from Busta Rhymes’ Woo-Ha, its chorus borrowing from Wu-Tang and Ice Cube, its list of guests including Q-Tip and the Roots’ Black Thought. “My era,” Q-Tip cries, “my era so original.”
It’s a state of affairs compounded by the fact that Eminem’s whole persona is predicated on being an angry, disenfranchised outsider: what do you find to get mad about when you’re a sober 47-year-old with a net worth of $230m, so successful that you “sell like 4 mil when [you] put out a bad album”? There’s the critics of course, who come in for their usual battering, but he’s been there before, umpteen times. It’s hard not to feel the same when Eminem attempts the old saying-the-unsayable by making gags about the Manchester bombing on Unaccommodating and poking fun at #MeToo on Those Kinda Nights: the former has certainly generated angry headlines, which is why you suspect it’s there in the first place, but, as on Kamikaze, those moments are marked by a distinct sense of a man going through the motions. Elsewhere, Eminem ends up reaching back into his past for inspiration: Those Kinda Nights details the hedonistic heyday of D12; Leave Heaven and Stepdad return to Mathers’ miserable childhood; In Too Deep and Never Love Again pick over a complex co-dependent relationship that sounds not unlike his marriage to Kim Scott.
If Music to Be Murdered By covers a lot of old ground, it does so in considerable style. It’s a stronger album musically than its predecessor, which may or may not have something to do with Mathers’ most celebrated collaborator, Dr Dre: his name isn’t in the credits, but gets mentioned so many times in the lyrics it seems safe to assume he’s putting his two cents in somewhere behind the scenes. The wiry synths of the haunting Little Engine and You Gon’ Learn’s gripping, chaotic stew of vocal samples and juddering drums are both unequivocally fantastic, while In Too Deep’s monstrous, clattering beat is only spoiled by an awkwardly welded-on pop R&B chorus. In fact, choruses are a bit of a problem throughout: Ed Sheeran does his best to sound part of the drugged-out party action on Those Kinda Nights, but it’s clearly not his milieu, while Stepdad’s lumbering rap-rock crossover brings back grim memories of nu-metal. But the smattering of musical flaws is easy to overlook if you concentrate on Mathers’ voice. If the passing of time has robbed him of his place as part of hip-hop’s steering committee, it’s done nothing whatsoever to blunt his talent as an MC, the sharpness of his puns or the brilliance of his wordplay. Music to Be Murdered By offers one virtuoso performance after another: delivery that’s both warp-speed and perfectly enunciated, constant shifts in tempo and emphasis.
The best thing here is Darkness, a genuinely chilling attempt to view the 2017 mass shooting at the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music festival through the eyes of its perpetrator, Stephen Paddock. On paper, it looks like another nihilistic sick gag, but it isn’t. It’s a stark, chilling portrait of a mind unravelling, filled with grimly telling details: the shooter’s concern that the festival is underattended, his proud touting of the gun licence and lack of prior convictions, his realisation that the notoriety he craves will be fleeting, because mass shootings have become a regular occurrence. As a demonstration that Eminem is still capable of being a potent force, regardless of changing times and fashions, it works perfectly.