How do you imagine Marshall Mathers spends his evenings, these days? The rap bad-boy better known as Eminem is now into his late forties, has been sober since the late 2000s, and a father for two decades.
It's pleasing to imagine him hunkered down in a warm chair with a hot beverage while indulging in that increasingly popular modern pastime – shouting at the TV news. And some of the themes on this, his 11th album, do suggest an exasperation at current events. Generally, though, Music to Be Murdered By sees Mathers vigorously revisiting his younger days, if still also ranting rather a lot.
The Michigan-born rapper has been venting his spleen at the world for 25 years now, and the persona has darkened along the way, from knockabout clown to troubled super-celebrity and embittered controversy magnet. According to the album cover, Mathers is back in the guise of Slim Shady here, his original '90s alter-ego, and often sounds impressively youthful and energetic: note his speed-rhyming on the boisterous track Godzilla, which rather outshines his guest rapper, the now sadly deceased Juice WRLD.
In fact, this album could almost be a reworked collection of old unused outtakes, as the lyrics often find him carousing and clubbing with younger folks. Mathers is still supremely capable of stirring up controversy too, and there are some outrageously crass sentiments, often aimed at women. The question is, can he still get away with it? And should he even be trying?
A lot of major music figures seem to think so. This album may have appeared suddenly – he also did the no-publicity trick with last year's Kamikaze – but the cast list hardly suggests a last-minute throw-together. Ed Sheeran is the marquee name, adding a sleazy pop chorus to one in-the-club anthem, Those Kinda Nights, while Mathers leers at the clientele like a lusty teenager.
The newer vocal talents Anderson .Paak and Young MA also appear, on the brooding Lock it Up and controversial Unaccommodating, respectively. And several old-school names – notably Q-Tip – guest star on Yah Yah, which samples Busta Rhymes and probably shouldn't work, but does. Meanwhile his old mentor Dr Dre is back, heading up a coterie of producers. The beats are uptempo and future-funky throughout; it's just a shame that Mathers's lyrical talents have not evolved with the times, too.
Indeed, it's interesting to wonder if this album would have made much mainstream impact – even in the desolate wilderness of mid-January – without causing such outrage. The most contentious line arrives on track two, the otherwise unremarkable Unaccommodating: "I'm contemplating yelling 'bombs away' on the game, like I'm outside of an Ariana Grande concert, waiting," he boasts, followed by a sound-effect explosion. It's callous, not clever.
That line also devalues the album's most interesting track, Darkness, a Stan-like affair in which Mathers puts himself inside the head of an American mass-shooter, dissing US gun laws along the way: "I'm a licensed owner, with no prior convictions," he says, "the sky's the limit, my supplies infinite." That track ends with news reports from various tragedies, but it sits uneasily with the braggadocio elsewhere: even the well-intentioned comes across as attention-seeking.
The album’s scattergun mix of tones could fall apart completely, but that murder theme just about holds things together. The title references an album of the same name by the master of movie suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who pops up at regular intervals with macabre spoken interludes.
Murder references recur throughout the various era-shifts. The heavy-rocking Stepdad takes us back to Mathers's troubled childhood, in which he ponders poisoning the eponymous parent, "sneak up with a lethal injection, put him down like they did with my dog," while there are several typically warped love songs. On Farewell, he "wanna hold you, wanna choke you, wanna love you, wanna hate you, wanna kill you, wanna hurt you, wanna heal you,'" while Never Love Again is a romance about his old addictions. "'I think I might be building up a tolerance to you," he says, but climactically, "I thought I loved you; you tried to kill me.'"
The primary rant-targets here are Eminem's perceived critics, however, and he kicks off on the opening track, Premonition. It begins with a blood-curdling scream, then much bitter boasting from Mathers: "Once I was played in rotation, at every radio station; they say I'm lyrically amazing, but have nothing to say."
That's a recurring theme, right up until the final cut, I Will. "Doubters question my skill," he whispers. "If you want me to murder this beat, then I will."
And he does. Actually there is no disputing Eminem's enormous vocal talents, and Music to Be Murdered By makes it abundantly clear that he can still pull off the old tricks. You just wish that he would grow up a bit, too.