In 'We Need To Talk About...', the weekly column from NME's Jordan Bassett, J-to-the-B vents his spleen on the topical issues that matter the most (or the least, if it happens to be a slow news day). This week: how, despite appearances, Eminem knows exactly how online culture and modern-day rap operate
There’s a fabulous moment on Eminem’s surprise new album, ‘Kamikaze’, where he imitates Kendrick Lamar’s delivery and cries, “’Revival’ didn’t go viral!” It’s true: Em’s ninth album, released last year, was largely panned, with the most damning conclusion coming from the New York Times, who reported that the record was so far removed from modern hip-hop that it amounted to “outsider art”.
So he doubled down, this week rush-releasing ‘Kamikaze’, which does exactly what that title implies: embarks on a glorious, self-destruction mission that sees the rapper take on everyone that ever doubted him – journalists, former fans and fellow rappers (especially fellow rappers).
The irony is that ‘Kamikaze’ has gone viral. And then some! First, headlines were made by the mere existence of the record, ushered in by its author with the understated tweet, “Tried not 2 overthink this 1… enjoy.” Then, again, by the contents: Em was furious at the critics who dismissed ‘Revival’, yes – but he was also determined to take the rest of 2018 hip-hop with him as he spiralled into the sun, ostensibly ready to see his own career go up in flames.
The list of artists he decimates is as bracing as it is extensive: Machine Gun Kelly on ‘Not Alike’, Die Antwoord on ‘Greatest’, Lil Pump and Lil Xan (and all mumble rappers, whose introverted flow he loathes) on ‘The Ringer’, a track on which he also takes aim at Vince Staples. He’s also not above taking the piss out of Drake, everyone rapper’s favoured target. It’s been suggested that Eminem is somewhat out of touch with the modern world, but this album proves that he understands how to game online discourse to his advantage.
Because every headline about him dissing an artist is followed by an article about said artist responding to what he’s said. It’s a charged feedback loop – one that leads back, every time, to Eminem. 20 years since he punched his way into the zeitgeist by causing middle America to clutch its collective pearls with ‘The Slim Shady LP’, Marshall Mathers has dive-bombed his way right back there.
This is a similar tactic to that which Nicki Minaj used on the track ‘Barbie Dreams’ from her recent album ‘Queen’. The lyrics to that song also went viral, as she run through a catalogue of rappers she reckoned she’d bonked and found to be wanting – DJ Khaled, 50 Cent and, of course, poor old Drake (“Drake worth a hundred milli, he always buyin’ me shit/ But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he cryin’ and shit”). It appealed to something basic and human: they said what and who? It was pure gossip fodder, playground chatter – and completely irresistible.
Live in at a concert in Michigan, Machine Gun Kelly responded to Emimen’s diss track with the freestyle: ““Knees weak of old age — the real Slim Shady can’t stand up.“ This placed the audience present right at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist; you can imagine the thrilled, uproarious response the diss elicited.
In a YouTube video that’s already racked up more than a million views since being uploaded at the start of the week, Die Antwoord retorted with their own rhymes: “Em, you slippin’ / You used to write better on drugs” and “We bred this kids, Em, they’re not giving no fucks / But they’re not feeling your rhymes or your botox.”
Eminem is actually way savvier and more in touch with online culture and modern-day rap than we first believed. This exchange of barbs invites fans to choose a side, redrawing the lines that streaming culture eroded. In 2018, you can like mumble rap and Eminem and even have them alongside on another in a Spotify playlist – but now he’s forced you to choose your fighter.
In this egalitarian world, he’s also invited fans to be a part of his world, to participate in his personal conflict. We’ve never felt closer to our favourite artists, and Em – not a fan of posting personal messages on social media – has drawn fans around him in a typically eccentric way. If you’re with him, you’re in the gang. Well, this is man who gave us the definition of a ‘Stan’.
As in the ‘90s, there’s a skit on the album where Eminem’s manager improbably leaves a voicemail to express concern at its lyrical content: “Are you really just going to reply to everybody who you don’t like?” It’s a hackneyed technique and a deeply outdated trope, though one that proves that – despite appearances – Emimem still knows how to push our buttons.