Eminem hopped back into the public forum last October when he delivered a much lauded cypher, dissing Donald Trump, at the BET Music Awards. This began an ostensibly new iteration of Eminem: “woke” Eminem. Long story short, the cypher was trash at worst and mediocre at best. First of all, it was really hard to get through: corny lyrics disguised as political activism. It was the kind of thing that might happen in a high school lunchroom when that one weird kid sequesters the room to deliver one of his “raps” and gets met with some light validation but mostly bored and wayward glances. Lyrics like, “he doesn’t have the fucking nuts like an empty asylum” and his over-the-top-theatrics kinda sunk the whole thing for me and many people (like Charlamagne, who said it was trash and got dissed on this album because of it). Plus, he was adding to a huge collection of disses against Trump without adding anything even slightly interesting. He followed that up with a bloated album, Revival, that many found un-listen-to-able. It was both critically panned and flat-out ignored.
Needless to say, Eminem was not happy, and in response he dropped a surprise album last week: Kamikaze, which takes its title from a verse in his cypher (“he’s a kamikaze that’ll probably cause a nuclear holocaust”). The album debuted at number one in the U.S. and the U.K., and is getting some scattered praise, which seems a little strange. Having finally listened to the album after a week (because sitting down with Eminem for any extended period of time is absolutely exhausting), I have a few questions, the foremost of which is what’s wrong Em, are you okay?
I think it’s pretty evident what Eminem is trying to do: he did not like the reception Revival got, and he’s trying to make up for that. His response was basically a diss album that disses every rapper younger than him, the media and his critics, and just rehashes the same themes and styles he’s been utilizing to a diminishing effect for the past 15 years. There are some things to get out of the way initially, for as “woke” as Eminem sorta seemed a few months ago, this album undercuts that completely: he throws around the word “retarded,” he casually tosses a gay slur at Tyler the Creator, and he has two songs (“Nice Guy” and “Good Guy”) donning a misogynistic “persona” that’s extremely out of place in 2018.
Look, I’ve never been a big Eminem fan. Even though I was into all his big hits and I use the verb “stan” to mean zealous fandom, etc., I’ve always thought Eminem’s music came from the same place that causes young angry guys to perpetrate gun violence (I don’t want to call it school shooter music, but…). For lighter criticism, I’ll quote Earl Sweatshirt: “If you still follow Eminem, you drink way too much Mountain Dew and probably need to come home from the army” which, like, definitely feels true. Eminem has always lived in these two disparate domains wherein he is the best selling rapper of the 2000’s and has mainstream success and recognition, but he’s also associated with a subculture that would now be defined by too much time spent on reddit and “trolling.” In fact, you could say Eminem is the progenitor of “trolling” with his early albums where he inhabits murderous personas, like in the song “Kim” which was on the playlist of songs used to torture inmates at Guantanamo Bay (if you were thinking listening to Eminem is literally torture, you’re right!).
Let’s talk about the matter at hand though: Kamikaze as an album. One of the main currents running throughout is Em’s deep frustration and anger at mumble rap. He calls out everyone from Yachty to Lil Pump, even mimicking the “Gucci Gang” flow as parody. But it seems like Eminem completely misses the point with mumble rap. He’s evaluating hip hop on his own terms—where everyone is judged by technical rapping ability—which would be like a figure skater judging all other athletes by their ability to do a triple axel. Not everyone can pull it off! But to what end is Eminem’s technical ability going? Angry, regressive, boring raps with filler words used for rhymes that you can only catch if you’re reading along with the lyrics? At least I can listen to “Gucci Gang” and still feel good about myself and society, rather than needing both a shower and a nap like I feel after listening to Kamikaze (when the first song of an album has over 1,400 words, which is much longer than this article, shit will wear you out).
Em has succeeded in everything he was trying to do. He is getting the attention he thinks he deserved, his album is selling, and people are hyping up his technical rapping ability. But why is that the success he’s after? Isn’t there something more worthwhile when you’re rich, famous, and middle-aged? Why do the same thing you’ve always been doing, why attack people for hurting your feelings as if you’re our thin-skinned Commander-in-Chief? (For example, going after MGK for, I don’t know, emulating Em and tweeting that his daughter was hot six years ago? Which seems to have sparked a burgeoning beef between the two Caucasians.) I mean, there are a few bops if you’re in the right mood like “Lucky You” with Joyner Lucas. And Jessie Reyes, who features in two songs, is a revelation you should check out. But overall, I think Pitchfork’s review captured the problem with this album in a line they wrote about Em’s themes of gay panic throughout, Kamikaze is “not only socially dubious but artistically bankrupt, and above all: boring.” Hopefully, he will wake up and realize that his place in rap is cemented, he has enough money, and it’s time to create something mature and worthwhile.