by Isaac Shur
Eminem has never been an artist that takes criticism lightly. Since the beginning of his career, he has never shied away from responding to, and lashing out at, his critics and contemporaries. In fact, after his 2017 flop Revival was critically panned for its cringy punchlines and out-of-place pop features, Eminem devoted a lengthy verse to responding to criticism on his ‘Chloraseptic’ remix. But apparently this was not enough catharsis. Less than a year after Revival, Em is back with a surprise LP that is largely focused on aggressively targeting his detractors, Kamikaze.
In some respects, the album addresses many of the problems that fans had with Revival. The bubblegum pop production is replaced with slick hip-hop instrumentals from veteran producers like Mike WiLL Made-It and Tay Keith. Features are few and far between, and Eminem has swapped out singers with rappers for the most part featuring the likes of Joyner Lucas and longtime collaborator Royce Da 5’9”. More importantly, however, Eminem bares far more resemblance to his angry alter ego Slim Shady on this release than he did on Revival. Despite all of this, Kamikaze falls short of the Slim Shady glory days entirely, as Eminem spends most of the LP making sorry excuses for his last album and his past actions.
The critical dilemma that is Kamikaze is perhaps best encompassed on the opening track, ‘The Ringer.’ Eminem delivers some of the sharpest bars we’ve seen in recent years over a tight beat, yet the message he delivers with his clever and catchy wordplay is outright ridiculous and just plain sad. Right after likening his trash heap of an album Revival to a porterhouse steak, he claims that the project underperformed because his audience is “mentally retarded” and not smart enough to understand what he’s saying. If Eminem has any legitimate objections to his criticisms, he doesn’t display them here. Instead, he opts to simply insult the intelligence of his critics and deny that journalists have any right to give their opinion on his music despite the fact that this is literally their job. It’s funny how Eminem never seems to mind journalists’ opinions when they’re positive.
Things improve a bit on the tracks ‘Greatest’ and ‘Lucky You,’ though not by much. Both feature a fair amount of lyrical flexing, and the latter sees Joyner Lucas join in on the impressive display of lightning fast flows and carefully constructed wordplay. But neither track brings much to the table in terms of narrative or substance, rather Eminem continues to brag about how great he is (the best, even!) while simultaneously complaining about how poorly received he’s been in the rap game lately. If you’re the greatest rapper in the world, why has all your most recent work been received so poorly? I suppose it must be everyone else’s fault…
The songs ‘Normal’ and ‘Not Alike’ are cute interpolations, almost parodies, of Eminem’s contemporaries, Drake and Migos respectively. Though the Migos mask is fairly overt and relates directly the topic of song (Eminem isn’t like all these mumble rappers!) the Drake cut is less so, and might come off more as trend riding than humor to some listeners. Though Em sets aside the silly stuff for a moment to apologize to his former D12 group members on ‘Stepping Stone,’ the track feels like far too little far too late. Saying you’re sorry for using your friends to achieve commercial success would feel a lot more sincere if you weren’t doing it on a song to help yourself achieve commercial success. Plus, the song feels like it would fit right into the Recovery tracklist, despite Em’s promise on ‘The Ringer’ to not sound like a Recovery clone.
The biggest strength of Kamikaze is its overall sonic feel. If you enjoy fast rapping over strong contemporary hip hop beats, then this project will nestle nicely into your rotation alongside some Logic or Run the Jewels. But when Eminem manages to stay on a single topic long enough to build a cohesive theme in a song, it’s usually to complain about well-deserved criticism or rehash tired themes of relationship troubles. I guess in the end, the title Kamikaze is well fitting. Eminem has had some bad releases, but two in a row shows that he really is crashing and burning on purpose this time.
P.S. – There are more than a few troubling and problematic lyrics on this project. Readers should stay tuned for separate piece that dives into these topics and their implications, which require more nuance and focus than one can give them in an album review.