Eminem releases albums with the tight-lipped secrecy of a friend who enjoys throwing surprise parties. When it comes to releasing new music, he never tells. There’s no forecast. We can’t help but be a bit shocked when the moment arrives.
Eminem’s eleventh studio album, Music To Be Murdered By, released at midnight on January 17. Like 2018’s Kamikaze, its delivery was a surprise. The project contains 20 new tracks, with a runtime of 1 hour and four-minutes. It’s a lengthy drop by contemporary standards. The Detriot legend may have embraced the bombshell aspects of the streaming era, but he hasn’t accepted the era’s dwindling attention spans.
I don’t know what to expect from Eminem in 2020. After 23 years, what more does he have to say? More than that, why should I give him my attention? A question that both the legend and audience must confront.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “Premonition (Intro)”
It sounds like someone is digging a hole. A nod to Slim Shady? Is he burying hip-hop? That’s what my gut thinks. It can’t be Kim; he killed her five albums ago. Is this Skyler Grey? Whoever is singing sounds like the voice of a ghost who recorded the vocals from the other side. Em is here. It’s nice to hear his voice. Oh, he’s talking about people bringing up his age. Dang, did he have to bring 2 Chainz into this? He mentioned Rolling Stone and Vibe reviews. He still cares about the critics. I don’t care for a complaining rapper, but I like this flow. Tay Keith got a shoutout. He’s always complaining, which I loath, but he sounds earnest. I like that. He sounds like someone who has been in this game for 23 years. I guess 2020 could be his Jordan year.
2. “Unaccommodating” featuring Young M.A.
I can not believe Young M.A. is on an Eminem album. I did not see this collaboration happening when I first heard her rap, “You call her Stephanie I call her headphanie.” She’s pure charisma. The Quavo bar. Haha, she gave Drake’s “Do Right And Kill Everything” bar a nod. I don’t know how I feel about this beat. It makes me want to dance, kind of, yet, also kind of join a rap cypher. Those two things shouldn’t go together. Strings. I don’t know how I feel about this Em verse. Why is he still using the “r” word in raps? An MGK bar. Rap beef now has the lifespan of a cockroach. If you aren’t making your adversary’s hidden child appear or offering to take care of their mom, I don’t care about whatever you’re saying. The beat is growing on me—it has a bit of bounce—but can someone please call Mannie Fresh for this guy. Yo, what was that Ariana Grande bar? Why is he so immature? Em’s flow is so insanely technical, but he can’t cut out the immaturity. Alright, the beat is rocking, but I’ll probably never return.
3. “You Gon’ Learn” featuring Royce da 5’9” & White Gold
This album feels long already. Eminem isn’t giving me any rap snacks. He just had to make a full four-course meal. White Gold sounds good. The drums are so thin. Royce! Yes! “Trying not to adopt my father’s old philosophies.” Royce’s work is an excellent example of the grown man rap I want Eminem to deliver. He gives you bars, but they’re so self-aware of his world. The segregation/separation bar. Marshall’s production selections are feeling more contemporary. His flow is effortless. I can’t keep up with this guy. Yeah, he’s in some fictional world. I never need Eminem to say the word “Drip” ever again. Was that offbeat bar about Blueface? He can’t pick on Blueface; only we can pick on Blueface. Legends shouldn’t punch down.
4. “Alfred (Interlude)”
Alfred Hitchcock! What!? Sidenote: Am I the only one who just found out Eminem’s middle name is Bruce? I thought this was going to be a Batman skit.
5. “Those Kinda Nights” featuring Ed Sheeran
Eminem is rapping about Bizarre trying to get a lap dance. What year is it? This beat was made out of Lego blocks and stripper sweat. Ed Sheeran is doing a bad impersonation of The Weeknd. He should’ve called Abel. Why is Eminem doing voices? No way. That “No, I’m Bi” line didn’t just happen. I did like the Fat Joe “Lean Back” nod. Ed Sheeran’s hook is doing nothing for me. I don’t ever want to hear this in the club. If you hear this in the club, sage the building in a fire.
6. “In Too Deep”
He’s singing. “In Too Deep” sounds like something Kanye would’ve thought about in a nightmare. These drums aren’t it. Is this a love song? There’s some beautiful honesty on display, but I can’t get over this strange conundrum of a beat. Who is on the background vocals? Someone get Eminem in the studio with Charlie Wilson. “I’m not happy here with her, rather have you.” Same.
7. “Godzilla” featuring Juice WRLD
Okay, there’s a lot of fun happening here. The beat is a moonbounce. You can do backflips off of this beat. Em is in a nice pocket. The rhythm is infectious. Man, I’m not ready to hear Juice WRLD’s voice. I wish the young man were here for this moment. Em didn’t have to join him on the hook, and I don’t know about this second verse. Em is overwhelming. I wanted a Juice verse. His hook is gold. How dare Eminem rap three verses on a song with Juice WRLD? You can’t rap with the youth and not keep up with the times. Wait. There’s a beat switch coming. You can feel his face turning blue. Rap God technicality. Who is he trying to compete with, exactly? Alright, bravo. You did it. You can stop, sir. He’s still going...
Jesus. We are only on track number eight? How? Eminem packs a lifetime of rapping into every song. Okay, he’s telling a story. Where do we rank Eminem on the list of America’s most excellent storytellers? Yo, is he loading up guns? I like the stripped production. The keys are soft; the drums are gentle. Nah, what is he doing? Is he about to shoot up a concert? This is some meticulous storytelling. “I’m armed to the teeth.” Why are you doing this, Marshall? “I don’t wanna be alone in the darkness.” Man, this feels tasteless. I don’t want to listen to these screams. Man, listening to this song is like watching Joker. A breaking news clip of the Las Vegas shooter. A song about the gun violence and mass shootings epidemic needed to show some grace. I didn’t get it from “Darkness.”
9. “Leaving Heaven” featuring Skylar Grey
How is this album still going!? “Darkness” was a lot. I like this beat; it’s stark and stripped. It’s like a country-pop song with some edge. There’s never been a Skylar Grey hook I had to hear a second time. “Life is like a penny,” a 1% bar. What did he say about white privilege? Macklemore bar. I wish he could cut out the acrobatics and share how he is really feeling. Eminem is like a robot using the algorithm to speak what’s on his heart. He’s confronting traumas on wax. I mean, I guess that’s what hip-hop is for? “Holding my baby pictures up like you proud of me,” sheesh. This is an 8 Mile-type beat. Let that hurt go, Em. “See you in hell.”
10. “Yah Yah” featuring Royce da 5’9”, Black Thought, Q-Tip & Denaun
This song is the one! The beat is being electrocuted on death row. Royce is skating with nitro on the rollers. Not long enough. Q-Tip! “My era so original.” This record is such a throwback. Black Thought, ladies and gentles. One of the greatest. I’m calling him No Bad Verse Black from now on. His words are knives, and he is stabbing this beat viciously. He’s treating this moment as an Olympic performance. “All my dogs are out the reservoir.” Man, this man is dynamite. Lyrical dynamite. The beat is going to combust. I like Q-Tip on this hook, but I would have gladly accepted a sweet 16. Eminem sounds so happy to rap. This vibe is his era. “Didn’t have trouble keeping up with the times,” ha, sure, sir. Tell yourself that. I don’t understand his breath control. It’s unreal. I don’t know why he’s still entertaining MGK this deep into the album. A keeper. I wish Royce had a bit more room to take off, but Black Thought was a man on fire.
11. “Stepdad (Intro)”
I’m exhausted. Why is this child being beaten?
I guess it’s never too late to confront your Daddy issues. That’s a decent life lesson to take from this album. I wonder how long he’s been carrying this song inside him? Yo, the stepdad killed the kid’s chihuahua? Is this based on Eminem’s life? If this is fiction, it’s my kind of novel. Dang, he wants to kill his stepdad. Is he going to do it? On an Eminem album, anyone can die at any time. The details make for an engaging story. Okay, we’re reaching the climax. He hit him. Fam said, “Bury him next to the dog.” That’s cold-blooded. I’m good. Shoutout to all the stepparents holding it down out there, though.
I like where “Marsh” is going. It’s bouncy. He’s in a nice groove. Why was this record not used as the intro? Em can be lighthearted without being too serious. “I should get Puff on a joint (Diddy!).” He can be fun, also. Eminem actually sounds like he enjoyed making this record. I did not need that wetland bar, lol. I’ll still keep it.
14. “Never Love Again”
What is this? The loop is loose; I like the looseness. I don’t know about this verse, though. “My friends say you’re bad for me, hogwash.” Eminem makes the strangest love songs. I don’t feel attached to this story at all. Did he not hear “4:44?” What is this sample? It’s a sample, right? There’s a familiarity to the hook I can’t place. The switch up on the beat is excellent. The production doesn’t ever feel exceptional. Did he flush some pills? Wait. What!? Ah man, this song is about drugs. Now I gotta hear it again.
15. “Little Engine”
Alfred Hitchcock. Why does he appear again so deep in the album? The JAY-Z/Jay Leno bar was nice. “The kind of crazy you can’t fix.” Marshall, c’mon, bro, drop the act. Did Dr. Dre produce this? [Editor’s Note: Yes.] I can hear his fingerprints. Love the punchy snares. “I heard you back with the doctor.” Yeah, if this were ten years ago, “Little Engine” would’ve been the single. Why the hell didn’t Dre produce this entire album? He gives Em beats with all the little touches and nuances that make Eminem who he is. There’s the Batman/Alfred bar I’ve been waiting on. Keeper. Make an album!
16. “Lock It Up” featuring Anderson .Paak
Stop the presses. People, we have found the beat. Yes, this is the one. Anderson. Paak is such a talent. His voice exudes energy and star power. He’s coasting. Who made this beat? If you tell me Dr. Dre, I’m going to scream. [Editor’s Note: Yes, Dre is listed among five producer credits.] I can’t believe he made me wait for 16 songs to reach the gold. Anderson. Paak and Dr. Dre could resurrect Eminem. Whew. It’s so apparent that he should be doing a full-length with them.
What is this? We were doing so well. Who gave Eminem this old bubblegum pop song? Why is he singing like that? He could’ve called a choir. Has Chance The Rapper taught you nothing? The flows are good, sleek, but every song about a woman doesn’t resonate. “Look at my frown, it’s a smile now.” If you aren’t going to make an entire album about your significant other, I don’t want to hear it. “Addiction is a disease.” He got me again. I wish he would make songs about his personal life and not mask them in metaphors. We are beyond the cliche. I can’t believe he sampled Craig Marsh.
18. “No Regrets” featuring Don Toliver
Who let Eminem use their SoundCloud? Don Toliver is catching all the looks. He sounds good. Okay, Em. “You left me for dead; I crawled out the grave.” Don’s voice is such a pleasant texture. This melody is great. I hope he gets in with The Weeknd. I’d be alright if Eminem weren’t on this song. Don’s hook and his flows are incompatible. They belong on two separate tracks. He mentioned Tyler and Earl. Has Tyler tweeted yet? I know he’s going to tweet, lol. I can’t imagine being as famous as Eminem. “I’m screaming out no regrets” would ring off if this was a Migos song.
19. “I Will” featuring Kxng Crooked, Royce da 5’9” & Joell Ortiz
This album is longer than years I have been alive. I am all out of words. Royce! Every appearance is a joy. He sounds like he’s in that Slaughterhouse zone. Back to mixtape Royce, not Book of Ryan. A good performance. I know Crook is coming to eat. I sort of like this whispering voice. Joell! I’m not exactly hungry for more Slaughterhouse music, but it’s great to hear 75 percent of them together again. Where is Joe Budden? Em’s batting fourth. Joe’s podcast bars would’ve been better. “Enter my house of horrors with a thousand floors.” Em sounds like he’s trying to take us back to the 90s. Nostalgic. The sun bar. The breathless flow would be more impressive if he only did it once or twice on the album, but that’s like the 10th time he spazzed. At this point, it’s not spazzing; it’s talking.
20. “Alfred (Outro)”
Alfred is telling me it was all in my head. “If you haven’t been murdered, better luck next time.” For all his deaths, Eminem doesn’t overthink the afterlife, huh?
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Eminem’s Music To Be Murdered By
Eminem’s Music to Be Murdered By is the kind of long-winded rap album that could only be made by a hip-hop veteran who has survived era after era on the strength of deft lyricism and shock-value storytelling.
Over an unnecessary 20 tracks, Eminem doubles down on the skillset that brought him notoriety, but there’s a laser focus on remaining current. In that regard, this version of Eminem reminds me of Dave Chappelle. He’s back on stage after all these years, with a critical perspective on the present. Em, much like Dave, has moments where he nails the performance in his recent standups, obviously still in form, but those strides of genius only make the stumbles more writhing.
Eminem is technically acrobatic and mostly entertaining, but Music To Be Murdered By is an uneven seesaw of highs and lows. He remains a potent storyteller, occasionally humorous, and unbelievably volatile. But Em is also juvenile, overthoughtful, and is metaphorical instead of straightforward on the most important topics.
Music To Be Murdered By is one of the strongest albums Eminem has released in the last 10 years, but I’ll only be returning to a few, select songs. If only Eminem cared more about making the best music and not being the best rapper.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, the author incorrectly identified the sample on "Yah Yah." We removed the inaccuracy.