If you were hoping that an Eminem album released in 2020 would be less offensive, violent, or controversial, this album isn’t for you. It’s called Music to Be Murdered By, after all—a title borrowed from a creepy 1958 music compilation presented by Alfred Hitchcock. In one interlude, Hitchcock’s voice can be heard explaining the premise: “This was meant for your listening pleasure—while you are being done in.” This surprise drop, in which we’re reacquainted with Eminem’s chainsaw-wielding alter ego Slim Shady, is as cold and uncompromising as it sounds. The snarling beats—produced by Dr. Dre, The Alchemist, and Eminem himself, among others—heave beneath wordplay as impressive and elaborate as it is aggressive, sinister, and, occasionally, unacceptable.
Unlike his last two releases, this album is neither pop-leaning (with exception of one Ed Sheeran feature) nor a straight-up diss record. For better or worse, most of Music to Be Murdered By is simply Eminem doing what he does best: gratuitously savage, antagonistic rhymes for the pure, juvenile sake of it. Longtime stans will rejoice to find three (!) collaborations with Royce da 5’9”, particularly the frenetic “Yah Yah,” also featuring Q-Tip and Denaun. The beats on “Stepdad” and “Lock It Up” are second to none, while “Little Engine” and “Farewell” wouldn’t feel out of place on albums released two decades ago.
But the world has changed in two decades. The divide between Eminem, lyrical savant and god of rap, and Slim Shady, a trigger-happy psychopath, has always been difficult to bridge. It’s harder to hear shock-value sucker punches about domestic violence and disability—least of all because they risk discrediting the genuinely powerful moments that Eminem is so uniquely capable of. The song worthy of the most discussion (and controversy), “Darkness,” is one such moment: What begins as a tender, personal tale soon reveals itself to be the disturbing account of a man committing mass murder from a Las Vegas hotel room, before ending with a series of breaking-news voiceovers reporting on real-life mass murders throughout America. For all the wrath and bloodshed on Music to Be Murdered By, its most provocative song is its least fictional.