Published Dec 21, 2020A wise man once said, don't read your mentions. He said to ignore the comments section. He warned artists that it's dangerous to read your own reviews. He said if you get a confidence boost from the positive critiques, you'll also writhe from the pangs of the negative.
Try as he might, the quintuple-diamond-certified emcee Eminem still can't help from caring what you think of him. His stamp-of-approval collection will never be complete.
Oh, the irony: Mr. Just Don't Give A Fuck is prone to creative handcuffing because he cares too much. Fellow Dr. Dre protégé-turned-icon Snoop Dogg's refusal to place Eminem in his top-10 all-time stings something extra. And positioning 50-plus minutes of fresh music as a "deluxe version" of his last album feels like a strategy to lower expectations.
During the flashes when the artist born Marshall Mathers feels free of this critical gaze, however, this surprise Christmas gift to diehard stans, Music to Be Murdered By - Side B, soars something brilliant. Stuffed in a state-of-the-art personal studio, quarantined in a mansion with an elevator, the trailer park boy with the otherworldly talent and unquenchable work ethic is still wrestling with an unsolvable Rubik's cube.
"I want you to change, but don't change / I want you to grow up, but don't age / I want the rage, but don't get too angry / I want the new but old Shady / I want you to say what they won't say / Just don't go too far but go cray," Eminem mocks on "These Demons," spitting from his haters' point of view. "They keep movin' the goalpost, don't they?" At 48, Eminem is better off when he's not trying to appease listeners' opinions or obsessing over his own legacy. Isn't that the point of being rich and successful? So you can set the goalposts?
Thankfully, Side B does have those moments, when Mathers indulges that kid who dreamed of dookie gold ropes and rushed home after school to soak in every second of Yo! MTV Raps. Once the listener burns through forgettable opener "Black Magic" — a less-inspired tread through a familiar Eminem theme, the increasingly toxic relationship drama, complete with Skylar Grey hook — the fun begins.
Over the three-song run of "Alfred's Theme" (which jacks Charles Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," best known as the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to delirious effect), "Tone Deaf," and "Book of Rhymes" (which climaxes with a flurry of DJ Premier scratches), Slim Shady stuffs more rewind-worthy punchlines and flow variations than most rappers will deliver in a whole career.
Sure, this spellbinding stream of dirty dad jokes ("My dick's an acronym because it stands for you"), silly similes, and onomatopoeia doesn't add up to a grand statement, other than, yep, he's still manically deft with the pen. Here, Eminem is doubling-down on entendres, nimbly stacking and layering intricate labyrinths of crosswords built on cross words. He's an ADHD MC rhyming for the sake of riddlin'. But he's finding joy in the wordplay, nerding out in the nuance. The passion still itches, and it's contagious.
Other attempts feel more forced. There's "Favorite Bitch" (featuring Ty Dolla $ign), an extended hip-hop-as-woman metaphor that Common nailed way back in '94 with "I Used to Love H.E.R." And "Gun Blazing," in which Em and Dre coldly dismiss real-life women who did them wrong.
More compelling are the two tracks produced by D.A. Got That Dope. Lead single "Gnat," with its multiple beat switches (them horns at the end!), challenges our hero to adapt on the fly and comes parcelled with a fantastic Cole Bennett video. And "Killer" bubbles with a clubby vibe that allows Em to lay in the cut instead of trying to slash it to a pulp.
As far as the more sober pieces go, Em saves the best for last. "Zeus" (featuring an understated White Gold hook that works) features some introspective closet-cleaning (an apology to Rihanna; light jab at Snoop), a blast at murderous cops, and some sharp insight into the fleetingness of fame ("Next they'll be mentioning Future in the past tense").
For his next act, it would be great to see Eminem give himself over to a single producer for an entire project. Or just drop a mixtape destroying other people's beats. Once he accepts the idea that no full-length will impact like The Eminem Show or The Marshall Mathers LP, maybe he'll be free of the need to touch all the bases and please all the faces. (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)