Hip-Hop

Five Burning Questions: Eminem's Surprise Album 'Music to Be Murdered By' Debuts at No. 1

Eminem
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, Calif.

For the second time in less than two years, Eminem came out of nowhere on a late Thursday night to drop an album of entirely new material on unsuspecting fans -- and for the second time, he's done major numbers in the process. 

Music to Be Murdered By follows Eminem's 2018 fellow surprise LP Kamikaze to the top spot on the Billboard 200 this week, with an impressive first-week tally of 279,000 equivalent album units. It's Em's landmark tenth album to reach the chart's top spot, putting him in the exclusive historic company of The Beatles, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley.

What, if anything, is Eminem still doing so well this deep in his career? And what about some of the other interesting chart debuts he fended off the No. 1 spot this week? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below. 

1. Like Kamikaze before it, Music to Be Murdered By appeared late on a Thursday night with virtually no advance warning, and posted a resounding first-week performance. Why does the surprise-album model seem to benefit Eminem so much?

Josh Glicksman: Eminem has largely built his reputation on the idea that he doesn’t play by the rules, so why should he follow the traditional album release format? It’s worth noting that of Em’s 22 career top 10 hits on the Hot 100, only five have come after 2013 (and all five of his No. 1’s came pre-2014). It’s not like his singles are putting up numbers to scoff at by any stretch, but his strength at this point in his career lies less in his ability to release a few powerhouse tracks and more in his success with putting up eye-popping numbers with his full projects. Plus, it serves Eminem’s old school reputation better to show the long-lasting importance of the album.

Bianca Gracie: Despite what you may think of Eminem, you have to hand it to the guy: the unwavering loyalty of his fan base is impressive. Ever since his mid-'90s debut, Em has maintained a steady support system that consistently shows out in droves whenever he drops a project. And the numbers really don't lie! All but two of his albums have peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and have achieved upwards of Platinum-certified status. But aside from his obvious mainstream appeal, I think part of this success attributes to his lyrical unpredictability. People live for controversy, and Eminem continues to reel us in with his "did he actually say that?" appeal.

Jason Lipshutz: It helps Eminem partly because he’s at a point in his career where he’s still a brand name but more of a veteran, and not in need of a glitzy radio single to make an impact on the albums chart. Like Kamikaze, Music to Be Murdered By doesn’t have a no-brainer top 40 single like “Love The Way You Lie” or “The Monster” -- it doesn’t have any Rihanna collaboration on it, natch -- but it does have a hip-hop legend with a still-enormous fan base, and enough A-list collaborations that casual fans or curious listeners will want to give an unexpected new release a spin.

Joe Lynch: I don't know if it so much benefits him as much as he just doesn't need the traditional lead-in. He's earned a devoted fanbase who will outright buy whatever he releases (these days, 117,000 is an incredibly strong sales figure for any artist to earn 21 years after their debut) and he's still enough of a cultural talking point that people feel compelled to at least hear what he has to say (154,000 streaming equivalent albums undoubtedly includes both Stans and haters who can't stand NOT having an opinion on his latest).

Andrew Unterberger: It seems like his negative experience with Revival -- which, to be fair, was also probably the worst album he's ever released -- taught Eminem that long rollouts don't benefit him anymore. He doesn't make radio singles the way he once did, fans don't need to see him performing on SNL or at award shows to be reminded him of his existence, his albums are practically guaranteed to leak commercial momentum rather than build them. But coming out of nowhere with an hour of new music is a way for Eminem to guarantee immediate, if not necessarily sustained, interest in his product. It's low-risk, high-reward, and it's the one way in which modern music consumption has undoubtedly benefitted one of our most old-world popular artists. 

2. Music to Be Murdered By has received mostly mixed reviews -- which might still be something of a step up from the reception to Eminem's last few albums. Do you think Em's critical downturn in recent years is fair, or is he not getting enough credit for what he still does well? 

Josh Glicksman: It’s a combination of both. The progression of “PC culture” has certainly not been to the benefit of Eminem, and it’s hard to know whether he would’ve ever gained such a massive following in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s had the mentality been the same back then. That said, Slim Shady -- like decade-spanning athletes near the end of their careers -- has lost a step, increasingly trying to showcase bar-blazing speed to compensate for deteriorating lyrics. Sure, anyone who says Eminem hasn’t always been taking risks in his lyrics hasn’t been paying attention, but something like an Ariana Grande Manchester bombing reference is both lazy wordplay and in especially poor taste.

Bianca Gracie: Okay listen, I have been a loyal Em stan since I was in middle school. But I took a step back from my fandom over the past handful of years, because his creativity was getting overshadowed by try-hard tactics. I'm all here for breaking politically correct boundaries, but recently he just seems to be rapping lines for shock factor's sake (like that Ariana Grande/Manchester reference on "Unaccommodating") or heavily relies on his fast-spitting technique that is now difficult to separate from its memeability (thanks to Chris D'Elia's viral impression). But the one strong point I'll give to Music to Be Murdered By is the production, which I think is some of the most vibrant that we've heard on an Em record in a while.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s fair in the sense that Eminem’s first three albums offered a singular vision of commercial hip-hop that resonated with listeners across the country (and beyond), while his latter work, while still showcasing Eminem’s technical gifts and some biting lyrics, don’t stray too far from his long-held blueprint. And that’s fine, because Eminem has continued to pile up No. 1 albums as his music has been considered less culturally urgent.

Joe LynchRevival and Kamikaze were uneven affairs at best, so the critical downturn is certainly justified. I would, however, say the glee with which his critics have turned on him is telling. Comparatively anodyne rappers are treated with kid gloves when they drop a mixed bag of an album, but critics were salivating at the mouth for the chance to rip into Shady with the same gleeful abandon he's approached his targets for the last two decades. So yes, that has meant his more fascinating bars of the last half decade have been downplayed in favor of fixating on his faults.

Andrew Unterberger: I'd say that at this point, he might not get enough credit for being one of rap's most devoted lyrical historians, continuing to namecheck and feature artists who are nowhere near Eminem's commercial level currently (and in many cases, never were) -- while also recognizing younger talents like Ed Sheeran, Young M.A and Juice WRLD who undoubtedly grew up listening to him. And both his flow and lyrical perspective are things you just won't find anywhere else, for better or worse -- he's still a singular presence in popular music. You just sometimes wish his songs were a little less exhausting. 

3. In addition to Murdered's resounding debut, the Juice WRLD-featuring "Godzilla" has by far the best first-week showing on the Hot 100, debuting at No. 3. Do you think the track is a deserving hit single, or is its performance mostly due to lingering affection for the late guest star? 

Josh Glicksman: Above all else, it’s a bit surprising given Eminem’s oft-dicey relationship with the newest generation of hip-hop artists, but it’s a solid example of what sound may yield the most success for the Detroit-born rapper in the new decade. It’s not without its oof-worthy moments (including rapping “Like a liar’s pants, I’m on fire,” and “I got ‘em passing out like what you do when you hand someone flyers” in the same verse), but it wisely hands off its sing-songy chorus to Juice and still allows Em to flex around it.

Bianca Gracie: The success of "Godzilla" is of course partly due to the untimely passing of Juice WRLD, but it's also a dope song. I think it's the catchiest track on the album, from Eminem and D.A. Got That Dope's cinematic production, Em's lyricism that's more fun than headache-inducing and Juice's radio-ready singsong hook.

Jason Lipshutz: Somewhere in the middle: “Godzilla” is not the most immediate track on the new album, but it’s got a bouncy-enough beat and Juice WRLD sounding at the top of his game, on a song that he should have seen hit the top 10 of the Hot 100 himself. “Godzilla” may not be a monster hit (see what I did there?), but I could see it being the biggest hit of this album after this strong start.

Joe Lynch: I don't think anything is a "deserving" hit single or not, especially when accounting for affection for late artists. Biggie didn't go No. 1 on the Hot 100 until he died, and I wouldn't say that made those hits any more or less deserving. I get people who are suspicious of posthumous releases, but this one is hardly mercenary; Juice frequently cited Em as an influence, and the collab went down before his death (it's not Frankenstein'd from unreleased material).

Andrew Unterberger: It's a solid hook for sure, but man are all Em's worst tendencies -- over-rapping, being too satisfied with his own punchlines ("cheese cake!"), even unconvincingly trying to have a sense of humor about himself (another Chris D'Elia reference?) -- on display here. It's great to hear Jarad's voice on a hit single again, but I think the rest of the song will prove a little too much Marshall for sustained radio or streaming success. 

4. While Eminem lands at No. 1 this week, it's a strong week overall for debuts, as both Halsey and the late Mac Miller post the best first-week numbers of their careers with Manic (No. 2, 239k) and Circles (No. 3, 164k), respectively. Which of those two albums' performance do you find more interesting, and why? 

Josh GlicksmanCircles. It’s naturally more interesting given the solemn circumstances, but the posthumous album from Mac Miller also sees the late Pittsburgh native taking another step in what was his ever-maturing artistic career. It’s less rap-heavy than any of his other projects, and intentionally so: he planned to release a third album to accompany Swimming and Circles, according to producer Jon Brion, which would showcase his hip-hop prowess. Circles is beautiful and heart wrenching all the same, highlighted as always by Mac’s vulnerable nature and his ability to craft a project that leaves the listener finding a new, hidden gem with each additional listen.

Bianca Gracie: It's an unfortunate circumstance, but posthumous albums usually bode well on the charts -- especially when it's coming from an artist with a supremely faithful fan base like Mac Miller. So the success of Circles didn't surprise me too much. But I do think it's interesting that Halsey's Maniac managed to snag the second slot on the Billboard 200. Not that she's a stranger to the chart's top tier (2015's Badlands hit No. 2 and 2017's Hopeless Fountain Kingdom went No. 1), but the singles from her recent project didn't strike with as much mainstream appeal compared to previous smashes like "Bad at Love" or "Without Me" -- the latter of which is on the album, but is a year removed from its commercial peak. So I guess there's something to be said about Halsey maintaining her success as she heads on a more sonically unconventional route.

Jason Lipshutz: The 239,000 number for Halsey’s Manic stands out to me, since its predecessor, 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, debuted at No. 1 with less than half of its equivalent album units (106.000). And, yes, ticket-bundled sales are a major factor at play here, but there’s still a significant amount of interest surrounding a project that hasn’t really connected at radio yet. A surprise Eminem album stymied Halsey, but even without collecting another No. 1 album, she’s got to feel pretty great about this debut.

Joe Lynch: Halsey's numbers are fascinating for me. Even more than Billie Eilish, her ascent to pop supremacy is the most surprising success story in recent years. Billie is cartoonishly gloomy, but Halsey unabashedly conveys those dark nights of the soul in pop music. The eager response from the wider public indicates that she's serving something few others are capable of -- or willing to do.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll say Circles, just because it's such a fascinating album to rank as Mac's most commercially successful. Obviously the set's posthumous release has a lot to do with that, but I really wonder if a project this artistically focused and singular would've been able to move his career to a different place anyway -- critically, maybe, if not necessarily commercially. In any event, it's a highly deserved career-best mark and it's beyond terrible that the dude's not around to enjoy it. 

5. Music to Be Murdered By's No. 1 debut makes it Eminem's 10th consecutive album -- dating back to 2000 sophomore effort The Marshall Mathers LP -- to top the Billboard 200. If you had to listen to one Eminem album in its entirety right now -- not necessarily your all-time fav, but the one you'd most be interested in listening to at the moment -- which would it be?

Josh Glicksman: The Marshall Mathers LP. It’s also my favorite, but it’s always interesting to revisit critically lauded albums every so often to see how they’ve aged. 

Bianca Gracie: So The Marshall Mathers LP is my favorite Em album (predictable choice, I know). But I've actually been meaning to go back a year further with 1999's The Slim Shady LP. It's the rapper at his wackiest and -- as he states on the album -- he just didn't give a f--k. That unapologetic nature that he attempts on Music to Be Murdered By is way more refreshing on his debut, and I want to feel that wild rush again.

Jason Lipshutz: We’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of Recovery, a commercially dominant comeback with major hits (“Love The Way You Lie,” “Not Afraid”) and some pretty frank reflections on sobriety. Everyone thought it would win the album of the year Grammy, before Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs upended that expectation. Is Recovery still resonant? Seems like it’s time for a re-appraisal.

Joe LynchThe Marshall Mathers LP. It was shocking at the time, but perhaps even more so now, given how the cultural pendulum has swung violently away from transgressive art. I'd be curious to parse the album through a 2020 lens. 

Andrew Unterberger: Probably Encore. Half the album is indefensible -- maybe more -- but the pivot point it represents between the first two phases of Eminem's career and how perplexed Em seems navigating it makes it his most fascinating set to me.