How far can Eminem’s endorsement take Slaughterhouse? That’s the question surrounding the Shady debut from the rap quartet of Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Royce Da 5’9″, and Crooked I. Can the co-sign and executive-producer input of a rap icon with more than 30 million units shifted transform the fortunes of a group consisting of hungry thirtysomething rappers with sour industry experiences, relying on raw rap talent to see them through?
It’s a problem Welcome To: Our House cleverly sidesteps. Instead of playing out like a study of Em’s aptitude for casting superstars, the album instead passionately captures the spirit of his own come-up, with a persuasive thrust bringing to mind a real-life reenactment of 8 Mile. For Slaughterhouse, rapping promises salvation, a way to move on from their undesirable or unsatisfying prior lives. It’s rap or die, bottom line. This is the group’s fraught, crucial rap-battle finale, broadcast worldwide.
This furious channeling of worldly frustration into fierce rapping jolts the album to life. Cinematic introduction “The Slaughter” features a live-battling MC getting Tasered and (presumably) wholesale gutted, before a chanted mantra defines a rapper as “a soldier who never backs down from any challenge.” Cue “Our House,” featuring an Eminem voice-over about striving to be “The best that ever did it / Don’t know if that goal’s feasible or it isn’t / But if it is, then God, if you’re listening / Please give me the strength to crush all opposition.” Slaughterhouse then enter stage right, studding the song with name-checks of hip-hop inspirations from Kool G Rap to the D.O.C. to the Juice Crew’s Golden Era standard “The Symphony.” Soon Ortiz is retracing his naive first steps as a 16-year-old in the studio and pledging allegiance to a career path that decrees: “Fuck swag and your kicks from South Japan / I’m finna be the best in this profession / I’ve been invested all my life.”
Despite this abundance of raps about the unadulterated greatness of rapping, the Slaughterhouse four pull it off with extraordinary sincerity, and Our House avoids devolving into some tired treatise about how these guys make “real hip-hop” and other rappers don’t. There’s none of the self-righteousness that plagues other artists who somehow see themselves as divine beings charged with upholding the ideal of authentic hip-hop. Instead, it’s simply the sound of MCs with backgrounds rooted in grimy enclaves stepping up and rambunctiously rapping their asses off. They pitch from crumbling block corners, not positions of privilege.
Appropriately then, there’s a pleasing violence to all this, and the best songs drip with testosterone. Early single “Hammer Dance” transforms imagery of the parachute-panted pop-rap icon into a menacing tale of “two-stepping with my weapon on me,” while “Die” finds Budden threatening to “bulletproof the hoodie for Trayvon Martin and go to war with the cops” before Royce tops him by warning, “I might go touch my rifle’s butt and my dick just might go up.” Fittingly, the album’s uptempo moments, from the Hit Boy-crafted “Coffin” (with professional spaz Busta Rhymes) to the Mr. Porter-produced “Throw It Away” (with professional hollerer Swizz Beatz), expertly channel the disorderly energy of iconic late-’90s Tunnel-era anthems. It’s a celebration in the rowdiest terms.
Offered the opportunity to prove their talent to the largest audience of their careers, Slaughterhouse should rest contentedly knowing that they’ve done so on their own defiant terms. They won’t score any pop hits, but they’ve upped the quality and punch of their particular brand of rap. “Selling out’s a short-cut, integrity’s the scenic route,” goes a line on “Our Way.” In this case, it’s also a bloody path, but it’s one they’ve chosen to take, and maybe that’s the biggest victory of all.