“Last year didn’t work out so well for me,” begins Eminem on the title track to his surprise new LP Kamikaze, “fack last year, 2018, well fack, fack.” If only he had taken time to simply tweet out this phrase instead of finding ways to bloat this sole grievance into a 45-minute odyssey of vengeful self pity and aggrandized schoolyard taunts. One can easily argue that the entirety of Eminem’s output can be described thusly, but where his previous efforts delved into these areas with panache and delivered them to an audience with which it strongly resonated, Kamikaze is proof that the world of 2018 has next to no place for Eminem; his window of relevance is shrinking by the day, and it is almost entirely his own doing.
He does not stand alone in this respect. One need only look at the recent behavior of his friend and collaborator Nicki Minaj to see that many rap monarchs of days past are ensuring their own path to irrelevancy by self-actualizing their own fears. The old adage goes that a king who has to insist he is a powerful ruler is anything but, which is why Eminem’s laborious analysis with his own standing and influence within the hip-hop community starts to ring hollow before Kamikaze‘s opening track has even finished.
It is here on “The Ringer,” where he directly calls out everyone from Vince Staples to Lil Pump to Machine Gun Kelly, that Eminem makes explicitly clear which tone this full-length will take: an attack. His 2017 release Revival was widely panned for its general lack of quality, and it was easily overshadowed by his viral-friendly, battle freestyle taking down Donald Trump that arrived a few months earlier at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. That single moment encapsulated what Eminem does best: deliver a vicious assault using his remarkable gift for wordplay and wholly unique sense of rhythm and cadence. Forced into a defensive position following his recent critical lashing, of course he would structure the entirety of his next project in this style, coming down on all who disrespect him with righteous, blinding rage.
To his credit, few could posit that Eminem isn’t on top form here. This is the most alive and invigorated he’s sounded on record in nearly a decade. While “The Ringer” may quickly lose the novelty of its string of disses, Eminem’s rapid fire, hyper-speed verse that climaxes the track is an undeniable thrill to hear, a perfectly executed display of the sort of verbal acrobatics that made him a household name in the first place. This continues into the following track, “Greatest,” which even by a conservative estimate would place this among the most complex rhyme schemes he’s attempted. The dexterity with which he raps is truly astounding, even for a rapper who’s made his career doing precisely that, and the act itself stands as a much stronger rebuke toward the ‘mumble rappers’ he holds in such disdain than anything he actually says.
As energizing as Eminem’s technical performance may be, musically speaking, Kamikaze is more of a grab bag. It is a far more listenable experience than Revival, though that really isn’t saying much (his comparison to his previous album being the “porterhouse” steak of today’s hip-hop LP’s on “The Ringer” is only valid if one accounts for their shared ability to provide an overblown, overpriced bout of indigestion). Where Revival was a confused scrawl of guitar-driven rap-rock, Kamikaze puts its sights squarely on the pop-trap sound occupying the top of the charts, enlisting such reliable producers as Mike WiLL Made-It, Boi-1da, and Ronny J to craft beats that are at least effective if not innovative.
When this sonic through line works, it works very well indeed. “Lucky You” is a propulsive track that bubbles over with high-octane energy, while “Normal” serves up a submerged sample of Little Dragon that feels fresh enough to outshine the plodding piano outro tacked onto the end of it. And while the Justin Vernon-featuring “Fall” sits on the verge of collapsing beneath the outrageously ego-stroking lyrics, it manages to keep the ear intrigued with skeletal lines of synth that map out the same sense of beleaguered paranoia Em’s lyrics effuse.
However, the album’s high points don’t come close to validating the schlock that accompanies it. I’m not sure I have the words available in this language to express the utter putridity of “Venom,” the final track written for the upcoming Tom Hardy-starring reboot of its titular antihero. From its Kid Cudi-aping chorus to its cringeworthy bars riffing on E.T. (for the second time on this record), it is a huge miss from start to finish. The guitar-accented trap house beat of “Greatest” is so irritating it cancels out the impressive rapping happening above it, while “Stepping Stone” is a foul throwback to the sort of painfully-sincere power pop that populated bowling alleys and pool bars around America circa 2006, capped off by a vocal performance from Eminem that is downright awful.
As challenging as some of this music may be, Kamikaze ultimately fails not from lack of quality but from Eminem’s lack of self-awareness. As ever, his art is designed to provoke – particularly on a record full of tracks rendered in the style of battle raps. And he does not disappoint; lashing out at Tyler, the Creator with a homophobic slur on “Fall” would strike many as in poor taste after the remarkable journey of self-discovery Tyler has completed in the past year, even leading featured artist Vernon to distance himself from the project and regret his involvement. This is nothing new for Eminem fans, but even his most devoted acolytes would hopefully consider just how necessary it is for him to use “Harvey Weinstein” as a verb in regards to a “bathrobe hanging open.”
Again, no one should be surprised by such allusions, nor is this where Eminem falls flat. What stands out after spending time with Kamikaze is the extreme disconnect between one of the most successful rappers of all time having to prove how great he is by spending inordinate amounts of time defending his previous album as an overlooked masterpiece. His insistence on praising Revival and denouncing its critics borders on the obsessive, again and again returning to a theme that only serves to underline his own insecurities about his work and his place in the hip-hop landscape. As a legacy artist with a record-breaking career of success, one would think he would have learned how to handle criticism in a more productive way than writing an LP invalidating any critique.
The list of rappers who are unworthy of acclaim in Eminem’s eyes is long, and their frequent shout-outs on Kamikaze makes it virtually impossible not to feel their presence throughout. Just as he so eloquently demonstrates the value of the written and spoken word in his admonishment of the SoundCloud school of rappers, he overlooks their precise appeal. Those rappers – the Playboi Carti’s, the Lil Uzi Vert’s – create a sonic world (or vibe, if you will) which is designed for the listener to lose themselves in. For all its merits, Kamikaze is not a world to get lost in. It is a single, angry diatribe from a man unable to reckon with the fact that his art no longer appeases the culture at large. In future, Eminem would do well to wield his astronomical talents to a message worthy of them.
Eminem’s ‘Kamikaze’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.