Think what you will about “Music to Be Murdered By – Side B,” but you can’t say Eminem’s not having fun.
This has hardly been a given on many of Marshall Mathers’ recent releases. Whether he was struggling to live up to his old bad boy image, publicly wrestling with criticism, performatively proving his chops remained intact with feats of acrobatic (if sometimes vapid) lyrical virtuosity, making the occasional attempt to reverse-engineer a new “Love the Way You Lie,” or trying a little too hard at Having Something to Say, mid-career Eminem has often seemed paralyzed by warring impulses. A few years after he reached a career low with the leaden “Revival,” last January’s “Music to Be Murdered By” was something of a step in the right direction, even if it sometimes suffered from the same schizoid lack of focus.
For his second release of 2020 — which dropped, like its predecessor, without warning (although this time around, rumors abounded including one that claimed Phoebe Bridgers was a featured guest) — Em appears to be doing exactly what he wants to do, which in this case is making lots of groaner dad jokes. Wildly inappropriate, R-rated dad jokes, but dad jokes nonetheless. “I’m ‘bout that capital like a proper noun.” “A penny has more sense.” “I’ll pee on your head like a Phillies hat.” “You heard of Kris Kristofferson? Well I’m Piss Pissedofferson.” Do these punchlines miss more often than they hit? Yes, yes they do. Is it hard to decide how to feel about this many grade-school bathroom jokes coming from a 48-year-old man who admits he can already see “5-0 creeping up on me like a patrol car”? Absolutely. But it’s still almost a relief to hear him stop trying to be everything to everyone and simply let his inner Adam Sandler loose.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean “Side B” is a good album. After all, there’s a difference between just not giving a fuck, which has been Em’s guiding principle from the start, and not having the proper quality control, and “Side B” is all over the map. The album gets off to an inauspicious start with “Black Magic,” a dreary murder ballad with the requisite Skylar Grey hook and the same tired splatter-movie shock lines. Things perk up with “Alfred’s Theme,” which nods to the album’s Hitchcockian premise by sampling “Funeral March of a Marionette” and making a painfully predictable play on the name “Hitchcock.” From there on out, the record seesaws between rapid-fire dirty puns and show-offy rhyme displays, with enough offhand COVID references to make sure this album, like everything he’s released, is easily traceable to the moment it came out.
Is there really anything wrong with Eminem turning in an LP’s worth of dick jokes and pop-culture non-sequiturs? There are far worse fates for an aging MC, and it’s nice to hear him no longer taking himself so seriously, or grappling so feverishly with his place in the pop music firmament. But the hyperactive torrents of insult comedy get wearying over “Side B’s” 52 minutes, and the beats are rarely distinctive enough to keep things interesting. The mercurial album centerpiece “Gnat”– easily the most modern-sounding production here — is an exception, as is the lively throwback “Killer,” whose indebtedness to prime-era 50 Cent would be obvious even without the explicit “In da Club” shoutout. Both of those tracks were produced by D.A. Got That Dope, with Eminem producing or co-producing most of the rest, along with assists from Dr. Dre. (Em’s old mentor also makes a rare appearance on the mic for “Guns Blazing,” yet spends most of his bars listlessly complaining about his ex-wife.)
Like any middle-aged troublemaker, Eminem makes frequent reference to the threat of being cancelled; though unlike his counterparts in stand-up comedy and newspaper opinion sections, he never seems particularly worried about the prospect. After all, lobbing lyrical loogies at good taste from the safe space of his studio has always been his most reliable form of self-care. But the thing that once made Eminem so magnetic wasn’t his willingness to spark outrage and say horrible things – literally anyone can do that – it was his ability to acknowledge the inappropriateness of what he was saying, and sometimes offer a preemptive apology, while simultaneously doubling down on the offense. We get a slight glimpse of that here when he attempts to atone for his controversial crack about the 2017 Ariana Grande concert massacre on his last album (“I know nothing is funny ‘bout the Manchester bombing,” he acknowledges), and then immediately makes a joke about the Boston Marathon bombing. Is it funnier this time around? Not really. But at least it shows Em can still operate on that same level of bait-and-switch situational irony.
We do get one wholehearted apology, however, on penultimate track “Zeus,” where he offers a mea culpa to Rihanna for an ugly leaked outtake on which he joked about her assault at the hands of Chris Brown. He certainly sounds serious about it, as he does later in the song when he confronts Snoop Dogg for some less-than-flattering comments, and offers a warning to the likes of Drake and Migos that their periods of untouchability won’t last much longer than his did. With his moments of sincerity, Eminem has always walked a fine line between unguarded honesty and thin-skinned victimhood, and “Zeus” mostly ends up of the right side of that ledger, but only just. “They keep wanting me to rap responsibly,” he complains at one point, and one has to ask: who does, exactly? It’s hard to imagine anyone is still hoping to see Slim Shady turn serious elder statesman, and judging by “Music to Be Murdered By – Side B,” he doesn’t seem too interested in that role either.