[Shady/Aftermath/Interscope; 2020]

For all intents and purposes, Eminem isn’t allowed to just put out an album. It has to be an event, one doomed to be picked apart with a fine-toothed comb. Ever since the one-time “greatest artist alive” was turned into the butt of near every joke – something, to be fair, he’s had a solid hand in helping along – it doesn’t much matter what he does, the pressure is there.

For the first time in years, then, Music to Be Murdered By – Side B feels like an attempt at sidestepping that. Taking advantage of the current trend of releasing a ‘deluxe’ version of your latest LP that’s an entirely other LP, yet not entirely counted as one, Marshall Mathers seems to have hedged his bets with his fanbase by putting out a more directly ‘hip hop’ album in the wake of chart-beckoning, Ed Sheeran-featuring nature of its expectation-laden predecessor.

This isn’t to say he’s gone in for a full-length with his longtime compatriot and DJ The Alchemist, nor that he’s finally given in to his old school-leaning heart by dropping an album helmed by the likes of Pete Rock and DJ Premier (despite the latter featuring). Both of these things, frankly, probably would have served him better artistically than what we’ve received, but therein lies the greatest flaw in Slim Shady’s latter-day soul. 

Instead, Eminem has used this opportunity to show just how well he can ride out trap-adjacent beats, to prove that Travis Scott and co. aren’t the only ones capable of comfortably gliding over tracks with two or three beat switches. In places, it features some of his best beat selections in some time, as well as his own most inspired production work in years (see the simple playfulness of “Alfred’s Theme”), in others, his greatest lyrical flubs, such as on the already-memed “Pissed Pisstofferson” flop on (the otherwise largely fine, it should be mentioned) “Tone Deaf”.

Yet, these stumbles stem from somewhere quite different than many of his other recent clumsiness. Whereas Mathers’ undoing is often just how overly hard he’s been trying, Side B feels rather off the cuff, as if it was recorded simply for fun. Unlike the typical Eminem album, which feels like it was endlessly labored over before seeing the light of day, Side B shows signs of being less than a month old, whether through referencing King Von’s passing or fulfilling Ty Dolla $ign’s greatest collab wish (which he publicly begged for less than a month ago). For an artist who so often seems to go through the motions just because he has to (cue Tom Cruise rant: jobs depend on Marshall being Mathers), it’s nice to see him do something simply because he could.

Indeed, as quick (and pettily excited) as Twitter is to rip into the aging rapper, the flubs here feel almost innocent, just goofy jokes, reminiscent of a young Mathers. Some bits, such as the delightfully dumb “Key” even land, bringing to mind his antics on the outro of D12 single “My Band”.

None of this is to call Side B an entirely successful release, even naively so. Instead, it stumbles essentially out of the gate: “Black Magic”, while certainly in line with the whole Hitchcockian concept suggested by the album title (something he shows only a passing interest in on either ‘side’), is plagued as ever by the seemingly inescapable presence of Skylar Grey with Mathers’ world. Her rote, soulless choruses have dragged the rapper into stale territory for a decade now, and he seems to show no intent of shaking free. The song is not nearly as video game adjacent as their worst blunders, but pales in comparison to Mathers’ own greatest murder fantasies – at least until its genuinely disturbing conclusion (“I just wanted to see what your insides looked like”). Novel? Hardly. Affecting? Certainly.

It begs the question: why is a nearly 50 year old Eminem still digging into these same old tropes? To be sure, he almost certainly suffers from a jaded sense of romanticism, but these songs seem almost mechanical, dragged out of him because he seems to believe they’re what’s expected. The greatest stumbling block before Mathers’ potential return to artistic relevance is simply his deathly fear of fully engaging with his adulthood. Whether he’s worried that his fans wouldn’t follow him there – or is simply afraid of it himself – is uncertain. Yet, from an outside perspective it seems he has such clear avenues to meaningful songwriting: his discomfort with fame, the way he feels caged and seems to hardly leave his house – I mean, come on. Alas, instead we’re given yet more rhymes about being angry alongside cheesy murder ballads.

Side B is not a total miss though, nor even a miss at all. Once Mathers stumbles through this opening salvo and the awkward bits of “Tone Deaf”, the album settles into a comfortable space, and even becomes enjoyable.

He often seems to save the best beat for the final moments of a song, teasing the listener, consuming an inspired groove for all too brief of a moment. Lead single “Gnat”, “These Demons”, and “Book of Rhymes” display this best of all. The aforementioned Premo, always a welcome presence, adds to the latter with his spinning, but it’s a shame that we don’t finally get to hear Eminem over a proper Premier beat (seriously, how was that still not happened?).

The moments of lucidity are also of value. His musings on “These Demons” – “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” – have a ring of truth to them. The Dr. Dre collab “Guns Blazing” (the first time the two have rapped together on an Em album since Relapse: Refill!) is all grim-faced focus, the two airing out their relationship woes from surprisingly human angles. It’s also quite bracing to hear a rapper of his stature openly address artists currently falling out of vogue on album highlight “Zeus”, when he raps, “Drake, they’re gonna turn on you one day too / And the more you win, the sooner they do / … They did it to Chance / Next they’ll be mentionin’ Future in the past tense / Or sayin’ ‘Adiós’ to Migos.” He also deals directly with pushing 50, a surprising bit of self-awareness for a man also capable of chuckling his way through, “I have an ear infucktion and I cunt finger it out.” (Sigh.)

In the end, Side B is an album of far more questions than answers. Eminem is defiant, but against what, exactly? Surely, the criticism lobbed his way, but for all his hyperawareness, he still seems to fully understand where it’s coming from, lunging at the shallowest barbs his music faces, rather than more nuanced, complex dissections of his shortcomings. He raps, rather emotionally, that he’d likely commit suicide the day he disappoints his true fans, but it’s hard to guage just who he feels those fans are: surely his original fanbase, now 30-somethings, would prefer to hear him over a batch of Dre or Premo beats, or simply just rapping his ass off a la Kamikaze.

So, then, who have these forced pop collabs been for, other than making sure his flame doesn’t burn out from the charts? Side B blessedly shows far less interest in those games, and, as such, it’s reportedly set to debut to Mathers’ lowest numbers since his (pre-Aftermath) debut LP, Infinite. This in itself could be a blessing: perhaps, just maybe, Eminem will stop caring so damn much that he remain on top, and just do something that feels genuine to himself once more. Moments on Side B feel halfway there, the album an odd maze of advances and retreats.

Truly, Side B is hard to unpack. The very fact that it’s Mathers’ loosest album in quite some time is the reason why so many have found weaknesses to peck away at, yet those very people pecking are the same who’ve long found the rapper’s work to be too try-hard and self-serious. If they’d only listen, they might find themselves disarmed by its sheer good will. It’s a double-edged sword, yet one likely to be left sheathed by naysayers, allowing it no real chance to do battle at all. I dare say it deserves better. Well, at least a bit better.

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