Authors often form twisted relationships with their most popular characters, especially ones involved with murders. Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes but gave in to public clamour and resurrected him. Agatha Christie detested Hercule Poirot but wasn’t able to bump off the “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep” until she was 85. Having dispatched the hated Belgian detective with a heart attack in a novel, she too died a few months later.
Eminem’s most popular character is a killer, not a detective. He’s Slim Shady, the puerile psychopath who made his debut in the Detroit rapper’s 1999 breakthrough, The Slim Shady LP. “When I started rapping as Shady, as that character, it was a way for me to vent all my frustrations and just blame it on him,” he told the rap lyrics website Genius in 2015. As he explains on his new album: “It’s my alter ego’s fault/ These evil thoughts can be so dark.”
There’s a thin line separating Eminem, otherwise known as Marshall Mathers III, from Slim Shady. In the 2005 song “When I’m Gone”, he fantasised about shooting himself in the head with a cry of “Die, Shady!” With 2013’s “Evil Twin”, the blending of Mathers, his stage self Eminem and the alter ego Slim Shady was made unambiguous: “’Cause we are the same.” Instead of forming a twisted relationship with the character who “made me” (as he put it in “When I’m Gone”), Eminem has over time straightened out the kinks.
The flat nature of the dynamics linking Mathers, Eminem and Slim Shady is clear on the rapper’s new album, Music to Be Murdered By: Side B. Surprise released in December, it’s a 16-track companion piece to the album that he released at the start of 2020. The first voice to be heard on it belongs to Alfred Hitchcock, sampled from his 1958 spoken word record Alfred Hitchcock Presents Music to Be Murdered By. But the master of suspense’s influence is lacking from these largely thrill-free songs.
“Black Magic” narrates the murder of a female partner, the most routine corpse in Eminem’s corpus. “I can’t tell if I’m awake or asleep,” he raps, sleepwalking through the role of the drugged-up misogynist murderer. The rest of the album is no less automatic. Eminem’s verbal energy is impressive, a profusion of rhymes and puns delivered with immaculate flow, but it’s expended on a rote litany of insults, provocations and complaints. Beats roll by on cruise control, with such scant decoration that the arrival of a brief trumpet solo in “Gnat” comes as a rude shock. Despite the ceaseless rat-a-tat of words, there is an abiding lack of incident. It stems from the sedate, untroubled relationship that Eminem has developed with his murderous alter ego.
‘Music to Be Murdered By: Side B’ is released on Shady/Aftermath/Interscope