Kamikaze is a tantrum disguised as a course correction. More depressingly, it’s a 45-year-old multi-millionaire screaming into the void hoping someone, anyone is listening.
On Eminem’s surprise tenth studio album, a long-simmering frustration finally boils over. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s breathtaking to behold the renewed MC rapping with tightened flows over crisp production, weaving in and out of pockets with near the same dexterity as he did nearly two decades ago. Unfortunately, the fabled technician fails to cure the malignant disease that’s been eating away at his career for almost a decade.
Kamikaze’s meta-experiment marvels at its self-awareness, but never takes a moment to reckon with the criticisms that birthed it into existence. Eminem lays so much of the blame of his artistic decline at the feet of his various critics — the media, rappers, time — he fails to realize his tactics have turned him into hip-hop’s Trump, a man preaching the “Make Rap Great Again” ideals of a past that never really existed.
The narrative of Eminem’s tenth studio album is an antagonistic rebuke of the media and their response to Revival. The argument could be made that if Em’s last project received favorable reviews, there would be no need for Kamikaze’s reactive existence. On album opener, “The Ringer,” Mathers spends the bulk of his time complaining about how “a journalist/ can get a mouthful of flesh/ and yes, I mean eating a penis/ ‘Cause they been pannin’ my album to death.” In short, Eminem yells “fake news” for almost six-minutes at anyone who dares to critique him, almost like the President he’s aptly named “Agent Orange.”
What makes Eminem’s takedown of the press in 2018 so much worse is that he’s done it with far more nuance in the past. Seventeen years ago, during his scene-stealing turn on JAY-Z’s “Renegade,” lyrics like “we as a people decide if Shady’s as bad as they say he is/ Or is he the latter, a gateway to escape?/ Media scapegoat who they can be mad at today” showed a level of self-awareness that he’s lost in 2018. Devoting an entire skit to one criticism from one review seems like a weird way for one of the best lyricists of his generation to spend his time.
At Eminem’s peak, he could lord his vision of “true hip-hop” — lyrical precision, vivid storytelling, and blind loyalty to the genre’s past — upon the masses. But as his dominance waned, so did the restrictive stylistic boundaries of the ’90s and early 2000s that he cherished. The genre mutated past his singular vision and, throughout Kamikaze, he sounds like a man lost and bewildered in time. Marshall wags his hands like an old man griping at the kids from his metaphorical porch as he screams at and about Lil Yachty, lean, Lil Pump, AutoTune, Lil Xan, Drake, ghostwriters, and face tats.
The most telling part of Kamikaze is how Eminem deals with potential criticism from his peers like Tyler, the Creator and Joe Budden. In one of the album’s most offensive moments, Eminem falls back into his homophobic tendencies rapping, “Tyler create nothin’, I see why you called yourself a f****t, bitch.” Next, he takes his Shady Records signee to task, spitting, “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’ bitches.” Never mind the fact that the hypocritical Mathers alludes to a past of domestic violence and raps about busting “her jaw with a Louisville Slugger” on the cringe-inducing “Normal.” So why this much vitriol for Joe Budden?
On a December episode of Everyday Struggle, Budden encapsulated the problem with Revival — in particular, the topical advance track “Untouchable,” and the album’s cover image, which featured the rapper looking ashamed behind an American flag. “This seems disingenuous,” Budden said. “It doesn’t seem sincere. It seems like a ploy and a fucking gimmick to sell records, which I don’t think that you need… It seems like you are taking the very common water-cooler conversation today of racism.”
Budden’s words make songs like “The Ringer” that much harder to swallow when Em laments he’s watching his “fanbase shrink to thirds” as a result of him criticizing Trump. When Eminem finally admits he wishes he could “reword” some of his rhymes about the president and “say I empathize with the people this evil serpent/ sold the dream to that he’s deserted,” it sounds like a mogul upset that his “message” messed with the profit margins.
The insidiousness of the white male ego is that it disguises its fixation on unchecked ownership behind a veneer of nostalgia. Eminem was once a titan of hip-hop, but he never owned it. AutoTune, non-sequiturs, and freewheeling flows are now all big parts of the language of modern rap — which doesn’t need to adhere to Em’s myopic view of the genre.
Kamikaze soars when Em forgoes shaming the present and decides to reckon with his past. “Stepping Stone” sees him shedding the facades of Eminem and Slim Shady and instead come to terms with the sins of Marshall Mathers. When Em raps, “One minute you’re bodyin’ shit, but then your audience splits/ You can already sense the climate is startin’ to shift / To these kids you no longer exist,” it’s a rare and needed moment of vulnerability. The world and rap might not need Eminem or Slim Shady anymore, but it could do with a little more Marshall.