Does Eminem belong in 2018?
He’s certainly earned the right to, with over 100 million albums sold worldwide, 15 Grammys and an Oscar earned, and the ever-coveted and frequently-debated title of “Best Rapper Alive.” But Marshall Mathers’ presence has always felt awkward in the 2010s. Hip-hop has evolved in so many different ways since Slim Shady’s heyday. Rappers today are sad, angry, drugged-up and wilding out, but in a way far different than Eminem was. There’s not only the plethora of new artists like Drake, Migos, Lil Yachty, Brockhampton, Young Thug and JPEGMAFIA but they’re so varied that it’s hard to trace any connection between them and Eminem. More so, there’s very few rappers like Eminem left in the game for him to find common ground with. He’s more of an outsider now than he was nearly two decades ago.
But Eminem is no slouch and has tried his damndest to push himself back into relevancy. He dyed his hair and his style back to its roots in 2013 with The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but his classic sound seemed more dated and less impactful than it was the first time around. So instead of being classic, Eminem tried being in the moment with last year’s Revival. Unfortunately his head-first dive into the modern era of rap music and the Trump presidency was bloated, messy and confusing. It seemed more like Em was shuffling into the background chanting what everyone else was chanting than using his clout to make a real statement, while still trying to make rap about crazy women and the use of his dick. It was almost shocking how one of the most acclaimed and influential rappers of the millenium could be so far out of touch and the world responded by giving Eminem some of the worst reviews he’s ever gotten in his career.
The good news is that he took the time to listen to his critics. The bad news is that he didn’t take their advice. Kamikaze is Eminem’s 10th album dropped out of the blue last week. Executive produced by Marshall and Dr. Dre, it’s mostly a relief to hear that the album is only 46 minutes long at 13 songs. It feels more like a throwaway mixtape than a crafted studio album with its repetitive trap beats and lack of glossy overdubbing. “The Ringer” and “Lucky You” are propelled by light piano keys and trap drums while “Greatest” and the title track have spooky synthesizer effects. Some music on the album is ugly and annoying with the double-punch of “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy,” along with the title track that sounds like its being energized by a fart. “Not Alike” is a downright lazy remake of Blocboy JB’s “Look Alive” with practically the same piano loop, the same drum beat and even the same swelling effect leading into the verses. It’s actually a questionable whether or not producer Tay Keith actually produced the song or if his producer tag was intentionally warped to let listeners know it’s not him on the beat. Musically Kamikaze is the polar opposite of Revival in both a good and a bad way. It helps that the record isn’t blatantly overproduced in an attempt to smother the listener, but there’s a lack of consistency and excitement on almost every song.
Which is a shame because for a few moments, there is excitement to be felt on Kamikaze. Eminem said on Twitter that he “tried not 2 overthink this 1,” meaning that the songs here will seemingly be the scribbles of thought he spits out while thinking about his career recently. Album opener “The Ringer” has two things on its mind: the critical reception to Revival (You mention me, millions of views, attention in news/I mention you, lose-lose for me, win-win for you/Billions of views, your ten cents are two/Skim through the music to give s**t reviews/To get clicks, but b***h, you just lit the fuse” and the modern landscape of rap (“What the f**k half the s**t is that you’re listenin’ to/Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow/Everyone copies though? Probably no”). Even through this seething hatred he has for critics and his peers, “The Ringer” has some sharp and focused bars about modern music (“Maybe ‘Stan’ just isn’t your cup of tea/Maybe your cup’s full of syrup and lean…Since nine tenths of your rhyme is about ice…You won’t ever see Em icy/But as cold as I get on the M-I-C”) and even some funny ways he defends Revival (“I guess when you walk into BK you expect a Whopper/You can order a Quarter Pounder when you go to McDonald’s/But if you’re lookin’ to get a porterhouse you better go get Revival/But y’all are actin’ like I tried to serve you up a slider”).
These slivers of greatness are peppered throughout Kamikaze, chief among them being Eminem’s incredible verbosity and rapid-fire delivery. He’s in his mid-40s but has incredible flow and timing on these tracks, working with the triplet flow moderately well and even speeding that up on tracks. It’s like he saw all the memes people made about the ending of “Rap God” and thought, “Can I do that on a whole album?” That speed and accuracy can be heard on “Greatest” (“Bars are like bullets when I spit them schemes/That’s why I call the motherf***ers M-16’s/Float like a butterfly, I’m gonna sting like a bee/You ain’t harmin’ a thing”) and the surprisingly effect turn-up banger “Lucky You” with a solid Joyner Lucas feature (“Snakes in the grass tryna slither fast/I just bought a f***in’ lawn mower”). There’s even bits of the heartfelt Eminem on “Stepping Stone” as he details all the friends he let down in the wake of the death of D12 member, Proof (“Everyone tried to go solo, really nobody blew/I was hopin’ they do, so I ain’t have to shoulder the crew”). Eminem even admits a blunt bit of self-awareness on the track (“And I don’t know how to recapture that time and that era/I’ve tried hearkening back to, but I’m fightin’ for air/I’m barely chartin’ myself”). These are moments of maturity and development in Eminem’s thought process that don’t require him to be politically active or retreating to his dick jokes, which is one of the many things that sunk Revival.
The good of Eminem is on Kamikaze, but it’s sadly buried under some of the worst lyrics and hooks of his career. “Normal Girl” is a boring and ugly song about relationship troubles that combines lazy rhymes (“Always gotta be so extra/Why you always need a lecture?/My ex hates to talk, she’s a texter”) with a shocking narrative of an abusive relationship (“Even when 911 gets the call that/I slipped up and busted her jaw with/A Louisville Slugger”) that was already covered on better songs. Despite having solid energy for a club track, “Not Alike” further emphasizes its laziness when Eminem ends his verse by randomly spewing out nonsense to complement a previous line (“Otherwise one has nothin’ to do with the other/None comes close to skunk, bug, soldier/Tongue, shrub, shoulder, one month older/Sponge, mob, colder, none, rug, hoaster/Lug nut, coaster, lung, jug roaster/Young Thug poster, unplugged toaster”). Not to mention that Royce Da 5’9” has trouble staying on the beat a few times here. And from there, the album’s cover starts to become a metaphor for the project as the plane crashes…hard. The title track is immediately flawed by using one of Eminem’s worst songs (“Fack”) as part of the chorus (“Fack, fack on everyone”) on top of its nauseating beat. That annoyance is extended to the dated and unfunny punchlines on the song as well (“While I teabag the microphone ’cause I go nuts on it…But somethin’ here is afoot—oh yeah, it’s my d**k/Get the measurin’ stick (what?), twelve inches of wood…The s**t’s embarrassing as me rear-ending Tara Reid bare/In my therapy chair, my d**k is the hair length of Cher”). The double punch of “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy” feel like hammers to the eardrums not helped by the god-awful singing of featured artist Jessie Reyez, who sounds like a drunk girl doing SZA karaoke and doing amateur slam poetry (“I play your music while you suffer like I’m Carmichael Polar”). Granted, Marshall’s lyrics on both tracks don’t help either (“Like my monthly bill from Sprint, they chargin’ me for a selfie….Pull a Vincent van Gogh, just to convince a damn ho/To be a housewife who outright lies”).
And then there’s “Fall,” a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon that he denounced on Twitter merely a day after the album’s release. It’s another pissy and whiny clapback at critics, even threatening them to hold their tongues before saying anything about the new album. He does name names, but it sounds like the attempts of a school yard bully (“Somebody tell Budden before I snap, he better fasten it/Or have his body bag get zipped/The closest thing he’s had to hits is smackin’ b***hes/And don’t make me have to give it back to Akademiks/Say this s**t is trash again, I’ll have you twisted…And far as Lord Jamar, you better leave me the hell alone/Or I’ll show you an Elvis clone/Walk up in this house you own, thrust my pelvic bone”). But to make Eminem sound even more out of touch and stupid, he throws the word “faggot” at Tyler, the Creator for how he “worship D12’s balls” and uses the punchline of calling him “sack-religious.” While that’s shocking enough, it’s even more appalling that Apple Music updated the song on its streaming service to edit out the word in attempt to cover Eminem’s homophobic slur instead of addressing him about it before even dropping the album. And no matter how many times he’s explained his previous use of the word in his old days, its use on “Fall” doesn’t add any shock or substance to whatever diss Eminem is trying to throw out. It comes across as a man stomping his feet in the ground of his old days and refusing to challenge himself in finding new ways of addressing his peers. It’s almost a musical equivalent to say, mocking a reporter for a joint disability and getting cheered for it. In both cases, it certainly makes the listener bury his face in his hands at the embarassing state of the thing he loves.
That’s actually the best reaction to Kamikaze: embarrassment. There are still clearly slivers of the greatness that defined Eminem on this record, but that greatness is stuck with amplifying the attitude of a confused, annoyed and lazy entertainer that will use every possible explanation to defend his criticism except for the obvious one: it was his fault. And Eminem at least partially knows he has faults and knows he’s in foreign territory as a musician in 2018. But instead of taking a step back and reevaluating his priorities, he thinks it’s just another rap battle that can be conquered by his lyricism. It’s not enough this time. It’s amazing how someone who is as big of an influence and fan of Kendrick Lamar as Eminem is, he still hasn’t taken to heart one of K.Dot’s biggest messages: Sit down, be humble.