It’s easy to forget this in 2018, but in 2013, globally beloved pop superstar Beyoncé was actually in something of a vulnerable position in her career. Her 2011 album 4 had opened to positive reviews and diehard fan approval but her lowest overall sales to date, while the album’s singles had all stalled comfortably outside the Hot 100’s top 10. A rapturously received performance at Super Bowl XLVII that February reconfirmed her legacy, but it seemed like that was what she might have been on her way to becoming in totality: a legacy act, one who would always maintain a steady and devoted fanbase, but would increasingly operate outside the pop’s mainstream.
Then, late on a Thursday night in December of that year, Beyoncé’s new self-titled visual album unexpectedly dropped from the heavens. The set not only outsold 4‘s first-week numbers in its first day, but it dominated conversation in the music world for the remainder of the calendar year (and well into 2014), changed the way the entire industry approached big-ticket new releases, and of course, re-established Bey as the Queen, with her supremacy unlikely to be questioned again anytime soon thereafter.
Kamikaze, the new surprise album released by veteran rapper Eminem on Friday (Aug. 31), almost certainly won’t have that overall industry-wide impact — arguably, no album since Beyoncé has — and clearly lacks the Internet-wide approval of that 2013 effort either. But it may have a comparable impact on Em’s own career, re-establishing the star MC as a commercial force following a low point in sales and relevance, and proving he might not be retreating back to top 40’s shadows as quickly as many would have predicted.
Late last year, Eminem experienced the most underwhelming response to any of his eight major-label albums with the release of Revival, his first LP since the hugely successful Marshall Mathers LP 2 four years earlier. The set was critically panned, notched just a fraction of the first-week sales of MMLP2, and failed to generate anything resembling a pop hit; no song from the album even graced Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart. The album’s numbers were still considerable by modern-day standards — its 267,000 units earned in its first week ranked third for all hip-hop albums in 2017, behind efforts from Kendrick Lamar and Drake, possibly the genre’s two biggest contemporary stars — but for a longtime blockbuster artist, it represented a major step back, and one that it seemed unclear if Eminem (at 45 years old and nearly 20 years past his mainstream breakthrough) could reverse course from.
If there were lessons to be learned from Revival‘s underperformance, though, Eminem seems to have heeded them for the subsequent release of Kamikaze. The former release received a very traditional extended rollout, replete with an event lead single (“Walk on Water”) including a major featured star — Beyoncé herself — as well as several high-profile TV performances, headline-grabbing artwork, and even a hype-building fake drug website. It was the kind of promotional campaign a star of Mathers’ level has long been accustomed to getting, and it certainly meant that anyone even the slightest bit tuned in to mainstream music in 2017 knew that he had an album coming out that December.
But the rollout backfired. The Bey-featuring “Walk on Water” was poorly received by fans and critics and quickly tumbled from the Billboard Hot 100 following its No. 14 debut. The ashamed-of-America artwork and other topical advance tracks (like the racial violence-themed “Untouchable”) drew a mixed response at best. Performances on Saturday Night Live and as the opener for the MTV Europe Music Awards failed to build momentum. By the time the album actually came out, many listeners had already assumed it to be DOA; tellingly, the infamous episode of hip-hop debate show Everyday Struggle where then-co-host Joe Budden calls out his former label head over his disappointment with the Revival era came out two days before the album dropped.
So this time, Eminem didn’t give fans a chance to be turned off by the music or narrative of his new set ahead of time. Kamikaze landed with essentially no warning, a true surprise album in an era most major artists can’t resist endlessly teasing even their so-called surprise sets comfortably in advance. The rapper seems to understand now that all the star guests (few of which are found in the new set’s tracklist) and hyped TV performances in the world don’t add up to as much promotion in 2018 as one solid day where you’re what absolutely everyone on the Internet is talking about — and with the unexpected arrival of Kamikaze, Eminem overwhelmed Friday’s trending topics.
Of course, it helped that he also gave fans a whole lot to talk about. Em spends a whole lot of Kamikaze talking about the aforementioned chilly reception to Revival, decrying his critics (occasionally by name) and attempting to reassert his sovereignty. He also calls out a whole lot of both his peers and his followers, starting some beefs and reigniting others, and creating a feedback loop of content that ensures his name remains in the headlines for the entirety of the album’s first week of release. Revival was also angry — won’t find many Eminem albums from any era that aren’t — but was less purposeful in its target-hunting, and also focused its ire more on the political powers that be, a fight that Em’s fans may have been less emotionally invested in, if not actively turned off by. By putting other contemporary stars and media figures in his crosshairs, Em appeals to the casual fans who don’t necessarily even have a horse in the race, but are intrigued enough by hip-hop drama to hit play on the album and sit back to gawk at the verbal carnage.
And the strategy seems to have worked. Billboard projects that Kamikaze may earn over 360,000 equivalent album units in its first week — nearly 100,000 greater than the first-week numbers for Revival, and the fifth-biggest opening week for any album yet in 2018. But it’s not just the total numbers this time, it’s where they’re pulling from. Because it wasn’t just radio where Revival flopped: It was also a relative non-factor on streaming. Both “Walk on Water” and the Ed Sheeran-featuring “River” peaked at No. 15 on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs chart, but nothing else from the album even made the ranking — a major drop-off from MMLP2, which spawned five top 15 songs on the chart, including three top five hits in “The Monster” (No. 1), “Rap God” (No. 4) and “Berzerk” (No. 4). To really compete on the highest commercial level in 2018, streaming dominance is a necessity, but of the 267,000 units moved of Revival in its first week, 197,000 were in traditional album sales, with the rest largely driven by streaming equivalent album units. For Kamikaze, of its starting frame of likely 360,000-plus units, album sales could comprise around 220,000 of that figure, with streams powering most of the remaining sum.
That trend seems all but sure to reverse with Kamikaze, which has been commanding the Spotify’s U.S. Daily chart since its Friday release. As of Wednesday’s (Sept. 4) chart, tracks from the album held five of the chart’s top nine positions, including both of the top two. “Lucky You,” the Joyner Lucas-featuring track that kicked off Spotify’s latest New Music Friday playlist, is not only topping the chart, it’s doing so with nearly twice as many daily spins (2,409,739) as Drake’s “In My Feelings” (1,208,398) — the eight-week-reigning No. 1 on Streaming Songs, as well as on the overall Hot 100. For Eminem to reassert himself as a major factor on streaming in such a way demonstrates that he’s not just a cult act with a sizable but dwindling and aging fanbase: He’s still a considerable mainstream force.
Whether Kamikaze will lead to a third act of pop success for Eminem on the level of Beyoncé’s post-self-titled run remains to be seen: Though the set’s numbers are considerable, it’s come with no shortage of understandable fan, peer and media backlash, and the negative energy the set is currently thriving on may prove unsustainable in the long-term. But it’s worth noting that Eminem’s success has never come unchallenged — whether it was parental groups protesting his filthy and often hateful lyrics early in his career, or rap bloggers recoiling from the stodgier nature of his Recovery-era material, Em has always had plenty of criticism to fire back against on record. The positive early returns for the response-to-the-response anthems of Kamikaze suggest he may be all the better off for it.