Raphael Saadiq
Raphael Saadiq poses for a portrait during the BET Awards 2019 at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Bennett Raglin

Raphael Saadiq Dissects Addiction From All Angles On 'Jimmy Lee'

Near the end of Raphael Saadiq's Jimmy Lee—the producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist's fifth solo album, and his first in eight years—comes the musical and thematic moment that's perhaps the most honest but most opaque on an album largely defined by pulled-back armor and exposed exteroceptors. This transparent yet dishonest climax comes in the form of "Rikers Island Redux," a spoken word performance delivered by actor Daniel J. Watts with slam poetry defiance—it's outward-pointing at things too large to get a hand on, full of defensive aggrandizement and self-satisfied puns. "We got the same glass ceiling but I'm supposed to be thankful for my sunroof/ And massah's still trying to trick himself into believing he picked the cotton, too" he decries while comparing himself and us/we (Black people) to Malcolm X, MLK, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Optimus Prime. "It's complex how being born with this complexion ups the likelihood of dying in a prison complex/ And orange ain't the new black/ Black is the same-same black/ But this ain't just for Black folks," he continues as if this is an album about racism when it isn't. Even if it is.

Jimmy Lee is primarily about Jimmy Lee Baker, Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose in the 1990s, and secondarily about Jimmy Lee as us. "It's not a homage record; it's just a hashtag to Jimmy," the singer shared before the album's release. And in the same way that hashtags of Black victims of police violence encapsulate feelings of pain and loss that transcend the names of the fallen, Jimmy Lee is incredibly more expansive than its 39-minute running time. For the most part, Raphael Saadiq's albums have never been long affairs (his solo debut, Instant Vintage was 76 minutes, but 2002's Ray Ray was 49 minutes; they've basically grown slightly short since) and they have almost always had music and sound as the central conceit. Yet here, Saadiq doesn't mine music history as much as he digs, for the first time as an artist, into the specifics of his personal story. Including Jimmy Lee, he's lost four of his siblings to a mix of violence, drugs, suicide, and police activity—and all of those subjects are present on this record; if not as direct touchstones, then just as the contours that provide the acoustics to hope and despair and entrapment. On "Rearview," the album's closer, Kendrick Lamar asks, "How can I save the world, stuck in this box?" and it's not clear whether the box is literal or metaphorical, self-constructed or an ensnarement by one of the many manifestations of society as an antagonist to Black lives.

"Rearview" is interesting because it features perhaps the greatest rapper living, but he's not credited as a cameo, and he's not quite rapping; he's more of a floating echo of a conscious. The song interpolates a piano riff from Bobby Ellis and The Desmond Miles Seven's "Step Softly," which was famously used on Ol Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo"—and ODB remains hip-hop's most iconic addiction tragedy. Rikers Island is not just the place where the Wu-Tang Clan once performed while their member was an inmate, it's also the name of the two songs preceding "Rearview," including the one where Watts, a guy maybe best known as an ex-convict on Tracy Morgan's The Last O.G., railed against the prison industrial complex and the unseen thoroughfares that fill it with Black bodies.

This may seem like wiredrawing, but it's not in the context of an album that primarily centers on dealing with drug addiction. Jimmy Lee pulls its greatest strengths from subconscious connections because to be an addict is to be a magician, an assassin, and a poet all at once. To say that to be an addict is to be a liar is to absolve and ignore that we are all liars, both to ourselves and to others. To put addiction in terms of the upfront costs that an addict thinks about (the price of acquiring the vice) ignores the collateral taxes of the masks and perfumes used to cover our tracks, and—ultimately—the tolls of severed relationships, broken families, missed opportunities, hurt people left behind.

The album opens with "Sinners Prayer," a needle-point recollection of a police state ("Eight millimeters/ And microscopes/ Fingers on the triggers/ Aimed at my dome") that quickly morphs into a call for divine assistance: "Hope the Most High/ Can see my heart is/ In the right place/ My hands are folded/ My knees are bending." The opposing forces here are disembodied—the police are never mentioned with distinction and the narrator is arguing with his partner about money: "We ain't got none/ Our baby daughter/ May not see five." It's not important why they're broke; it's not important what ails their child. What's important is the sense of despondency that leads to prayer: "This kind of hurt can't be/ Be justified."

What's even more important is that by the next song, "So Ready," Jimmy Lee as us has been failed by God and is damaging his lover and best friend by damaging himself: "I never come home at night/ And you stay by my side/ But then I broke your heart/ I went too far/ I'm still out here living wrong/ The drugs were too strong." One track later, on "This World is Mad," we're stuck facing the behind-the-back jeers of one's family and extended family of community—"Trying to be a king/ When everyone around him/ Sees the clown and/ They're laughing at him." At this point, Jimmy Lee begins to get grand and paranoid, but no longer told from the first person (if only for a moment), as if Raphael needs to see the best in his brother, but also can’t directly handle the psychic weight of fully stepping into the shoes of the dead. He's not quite making excuses and rationalizations for the main character but he does start to blame outside forces more directly—"This world is drunk and the people are mad"—while getting more metaphoric, even as he goes into detail: "He's always in three places/ Spaces undefined/Heart is always racing/ For something he will never find." Here, the album begins to present itself as Raphael Saadiq's best album that's also the hardest to listen to.

 

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The music is as accomplished and confidently unshowy as one would expect from the man who was indispensable to songs like D'Angelo's lustful "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," albums like Solange's A Seat At The Table, the music of new jack soul pioneers Tony! Toni! Toné!—who always balanced themes of family and relational intimacy, as well as the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl—which focused almost solely on romantic love. With every song produced or co-produced by Saadiq, Jimmy Lee is sonically defined by low chords, space-giving drums, and rock guitars—dark sounds for dark matters. It's slow-fever blues and desperate gospel that shifts from longing for redemption to turning inward because that's how addiction works. But it’s not all one-note. Jimmy Lee showcases a depth of references, as Saadiq plunges into the DNA of the styles that have influenced him over his three decades of making professional music—leaning on, reimagining, and stripping down material from sources including electronic music to nu-wave pop to emerge with exposed nerves that feel organically cohesive as a body.

The sounds work as a backdrop for these subjects because it feels like the play of opposites of addiction—bouncing lows and soaring highs, smooth descents into jagged edges, hard-earned climbs into transcendence. “And as random as I sound/ I still manage to hold it down,” Saadiq sings on “I’m Feeling Love,” the album’s most straight-forward R&B number that, like D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” is a love song about a vice. On “My Walk,” he’s a firebrand rasping from the pulpit and taking it to the streets with a martial bop that topically references the talent shows, saxophones, and betrayal on his way to becoming a full-fledged musician: “Very next morning I had a horn in my hand/ I thought I was in the Southern Marching Band/ I love Jimmy, but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn/ Jimmy shot heroin and he was my momma's son.” The song ends abruptly shortly thereafter and the next song, “Belongs to God,” feels like a redemptive moment of church blues handled by Rev. Elijah Baker Sr.—it’s actually a slight remake of the gospel singer’s 2017 song, “My Body Belongs to God.” Again, Saadiq steps back as if even speaking from the abyss of his brother’s pain is too much for him. But the album has already shown us that the pull of addiction was too strong for Jimmy Lee to be saved by God’s hands.

Because to be an addict is to be cop, killer, and judge to one's self. It's to occupy the roles of warden, jailor, and inmate (he's always in three places). To be an addict is to feel like a time traveler frozen in a moment that you are not sure you want to get out of, even if you can. "Even when I'm clean/ I'm still a dope fiend," our narrator says on "Kings Fall." It's the album's fifth song, the one after "Something Keeps Calling," where he sings "I feel the burdens on me/ Something keeps calling me/ This is so heavy for me." Yes, he detoured into the second-person on "The World is Drunk," but he put Jimmy Lee as us back in our own body because addiction is a reversal of gazes. Most people blame others in public and ourselves in quiet times, but addiction makes us blame ourselves and only slightly looking out at the world as a cause of our afflictions at our most denying lows. And that's perhaps what makes the closing suite of songs both honest and dishonest.

"Rikers Island Redux" is a coda to the song before it, "Rikers Island," which has a choir (which is actually a multi-tracked version of Saadiq himself) singing that there are "too many niggas in Rikers Island/Why must it be?" It feels like that last big statement Saadiq wants made before he takes the album out, but it's also the one he has been subtly making all along. Drug addiction cannot be separated from the pipe to prison pipeline, nor can the prison industrial complex be separated from slavery, any more than an addict can be separated from the failures of a society. It's no mistake that Jimmy Lee begins with persecution, financial distress, and being alienated from community. So, yes, as Watts claims, "this ain't just for Black folks." But, no, it is.

Jimmy Lee is about the particular forces that viewed the crack epidemic as a commerce center for incarceration but see opioid addiction as a disease to be treated. It's about the law enforcement policies and a legal system that created New York's inordinately punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws while hitting Johnson & Johnson—a company with over $80 billion in yearly revenue—with a relatively paltry $572 million fine for its role in Oklahoma's opioid crisis. The Notorious B.I.G. once claimed that he "sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson," but that's an unabashed lie that tells the truth about how desires and capitalism and racism swirl on themselves, like an ouroboros that eats but never gets full, dancing on its own greed and hate, feeding us sadness and truth and escape, as if anything can ever break a cycle that begins with the individual but cannot be divorced from a society that can only maintain its fullness by making us all hungry for… something.

These ideas repeat themselves like a vicious groundhog day, revealing meaning and connections while the themes bubble from unspoken knowing into pointed lyricism the same way an addict can tell a story that says so much about human truth when they're lying to cover their tracks, both figurative and literal. It's the way that 39 minutes seem so much longer; the way a hashtag says so much more than a name; the way that an addict is a magician, able to be in three places at once—talking about Jimmy Lee as a person, Jimmy Lee as us, and Jimmy Lee as the inevitable outcome of a world equation that has been built on Black labor and genius while giving us almost none of the rewards or fruits of our contributions.

On "Glory to the Veins," Raphael Saadiq admits, "There's too many people walking behind me/ I need you beside me, please come and find me/ It's been so cold/ The light could blind me." He seems to be talking about Jimmy speaking to God, but he may also be talking about himself to us, or about us talking to the world. Because he, like his brother, is able to be in three places at once.

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Lil Wayne attends his "Funeral" album release party on February 01, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Photo by Jeff Schear

Lil Wayne Is Comfortable Post-Comeback On ‘Funeral’

Everybody loves a good comeback story. But once that story ends, after you’ve made the grand comeback, then you’re just back. You end up on the first week of The Masked Singer in a robot costume to sell your latest album. It’s a career phase that plenty of rock stars have settled into, and now a generation of superstar rappers is experiencing it as well.

You know how every few years, Bruce Springsteen puts out a new album, and Rolling Stone gives it five stars? A lot of your friends will check it out, but way more of them will go see him next time he tours, because he’s Bruce? That’s the level of comfort Lil Wayne deserves, after enduring contract disputes, legal troubles, and health issues while remaking popular music in his image.

The rapper born Dwayne Carter endured a five-year gap between studio albums following 2013’s I Am Not A Human Being II, possibly due to disputes with his record label. He even released the Tidal exclusive Free Weezy Album in 2015. Following a few mixtapes and false starts, Tha Carter V was finally released in September 2018, debuting atop the Billboard 200 thanks to an adoring public.

A little over a year later, Wayne is back again with Funeral, released Friday, January 31. Funeral  is not Wayne’s best work, and it’s a mixed bag at 24 tracks. But the album shows Wayne still capable of great bars and rapping with the same enthusiasm he’s shown off since he was 17 years old, rapping about dodging police on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wayne can still deliver great verses when he’s on. “I live the American dream / Foreign everything,” he yelps on “Dreams.” On “Mahogany,” he wraps around repetition of the title phrase like producers Mannie Fresh and Sarcastic Sounds chopping up Eryn Allen Kane’s vocals: “Mahogany sand, boy, I start a sand storm / Mahogany skin, touch me, I cut your hands off.” On “Line Em Up,” he raps “Pistol whip you 'til you know the serial number by heart,” a threat that would make Prodigy proud.

The beats on Funeral span styles as well as eras. GQ reports that some beats were made less than a year before release, while the title track’s beat dates back to 2013. “Funeral” begins with drumless melodrama until the second half beat reveals another follower of the Dreams & Nightmares album intro format. The keys and bounce on “Ball Hard” are influenced by the low menace of Memphis beats. “Mama Mia” is built around post-dubstep shrieks from Some Randoms, and Wayne matches the energy with an athletic display of rapping.

On “Clap For Em,” Lil Wayne shouts commands to twerkers over a bounce beat straight from his hometown. Wayne starts the second verse with “Wobble-di-wobble,” a reference to his own verse on Juvenile’s immortal 1998 song “Back That Azz Up”. The line was also included in Big Sean and Nicki Minaj’s 2011 collab “Dance (A$$).” It’s an oddly poignant reminder of Wayne’s longevity, and this allusion reinforces his status as an important figure in the canon of booty-centric rap songs.

Given Wayne’s numerous hits, nothing on Funeral really sounds like a single in the way “Right Above It” or even “Uproar” did. “I Do It,” a collab with the clashing Big Sean and Lil Baby, was dubbed the first “single” via tweet but expect that to change once the streams gravitate towards a favorite.

“Trust Nobody,” the track with an Adam Levine chorus, would have been huge in 2010 as the soundtrack to a Call of Duty commercial. The hook’s fake deep cynical ethos is not far removed from Eminem’s Recovery or Wayne’s own “rock” album Rebirth. Now, it just sounds like a relic, but like Eminem, the anachronism won’t keep Wayne from debuting atop the Billboard 200.

“Wayne’s World” comes close to grating with its obvious Myers and Carvey sample, but the exuberance in their voices works. The track succeeds thanks to the beat by Manny Galvez and Louie Haze; it sounds like a machine ascending at light speed, over huge drums. Hearing Wayne rap “Party time, excellent” is so fun!

Most of the featured rappers accentuate Wayne at his carefree best, including songs with Lil Twist, O.T. Genasis, and Jay Rock. Takeoff sounds fantastic paired with Wayne on “I Don’t Sleep.” The two ping-pong around a P’ierre Bourne-esque beat with nearly audible smiles. “Me without the paper is like Tune without the lean / Or Phil without the rings,” the Migo raps.

2 Chainz appears for a Collegrove reunion on “Know You Know.” Lines like “I’m an ex-drug dealer / Get a rush when the egg sizzle” are enough to boost the song beyond its lazily misogynistic hook.

It’s beyond the scope of one critic, certainly this one in particular, to claim where the line for good taste exists in rap, if indeed it does at all. But the worst lines on the album aren’t just in poor taste; they’re boring, stripped of the jaw-dropping associations that prime Wayne used to generate between breaths.

“Bastard (Satan’s Kid)” shows Wayne adapting to the style of XXXTentacion, an artist he himself influenced, like Earl Sweatshirt with MIKE or Pharrell with Tyler, the Creator, except much worse. Its hook urges mistrust of women with a mean-spirited joke. The bad guy cliches just sound like a surly posturing teenager. XXX appears posthumously on the following track “Get Outta My Head,” and it’s similarly joyless. On “Mama Mia,” Wayne raps “blunt looking Cuban / My eyes look Korean.” It’s not just a racist joke, it’s one that’s been told a thousand times. Wayne’s a better writer than that.

Wayne records constantly, and he narrowed his work down to 72 songs for Mack Maine’s consideration and curation. The Funeral leaks that emerge in the coming weeks will likely include gems that will seem unthinkable to leave off the final project, like Tha Carter V before it. But Lil Wayne’s best work has never been contained by the record label economy. It’s reminiscent of the fiery prolific rapper Sada Baby releasing his New Year’s Day 2020 project on Datpiff.

Knowing that Wayne leaves his tracklists to associates to decide, it’s easy to ponder an auteurist Lil Wayne album, one where the Martian writes to an overarching theme. Wayne takes pride in his ability to stick to the subject in his verses and songs, comparing his early raps to school. “You’d want to be the guy that turns in the best paper, and so I would always try to be the guy who’d stick to the subject the most in my verse because I knew everybody else is about to get on this song and still try to find a way to talk about something they really want to talk about,” he recently told Entertainment Weekly. Could that focus craft a self-important would-be instant classic, maybe condensed into a more manageable package?

But that’s not what Lil Wayne does, and who can fault him with sticking to what he does best, over two decades into his career? Mess with the formula too much and end up with Clapton’s Unplugged or ballet scores by Elvis Costello.  The hard drive dumps direct from Wayne’s brain have been vital to rap music for many years, and we can hope there’s many more in our future. Catch Lil Wayne on tour this summer, where a few of the Funeral tracks will sound great next to all the hits.

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Christopher Polk

Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Kevin Mazur

Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.

The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.

“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.

Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.

A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.

That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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