Eminem is not happy. We know because he tells us, in the opening seconds of ‘Kamikaze’, like he’s psyching himself up: “I feel like I want to punch the world in the fucking face right now“.
He’s upset, mostly, about the fact that people didn’t like his last album, the not-particularly-great ‘Revival’, released on December 15, 2017. That LP continued down a course he’d been set on since 2010’s ‘Recovery’, an Eminem that had lost sight of the cartoon devil fans first fell for in the late ’90s. Latter-day Eminem was earnest, goddy, flawed, lacking confidence even, and on ‘Revival’, pointedly political too.
‘Revival’ featured a grab bag of gimme-a-hit-please guests: Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and the ubiquitous Ed Sheeran, who co-wrote the sappy ‘River’. It wasn’t a total stinker, but it was just another ‘meh’ release from a once iconoclastic artist who’d slipped into middle age as a Slim Shadow of his former self.
The criticisms of it clearly stung: “They been pannin’ my album to death/So I been givin’ the media fingers,” he spits on opener ‘The Ringer’, a track which delivers, in jaw-dropping, super-quick flow, more honesty and ire than we’ve seen from Eminem in years, calling out journalists, fellow rappers and fans who’ve turned their back on him.
It should be noted that ‘Revival’ went to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, and that a significant portion of his missing fans – if indeed there are any – are likely to have jumped ship due to Em’s vehement anti-Trump stance (he refers to the President as “this evil serpent” on title track ‘Kamikaze’, and later dubs him “Agent Orange”).
And you suspect, partly, it’s the embarrassment of hyping up your own grand return, only to find it wasn’t your ‘68 Comeback Special. Contrast the titles of the two releases – ‘Kamikaze’ is Eminem launching a torpedo at his own career.
So Eminem’s metric for success is unclear, but perhaps it stings just not being talked about as much. “Revival didn’t go viral”, he says on ‘Greatest’. In a fit of hubris, the nature of this album’s release – dropped with no warning, with a cover art concept pilfered from Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed To Ill’, is Eminem trying to go viral – something that anyone who’s ever tried to create ‘viral content’ will tell you involves a certain amount of alchemy and has nothing to do with how much you want it to happen.
There’s a sense Eminem struggles with the modern world, hitting out at hip hop’s biggest current stars and commentators (Tyler, Drake, Lil Yachty, Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Joe Budden), declaring that “the boom bap is coming back with an axe to mumble rap” and failing to understand what constitutes a hit album nowadays. This year alone, Kanye’s multiple releases and Drake’s streaming-friendly 90-minute ‘Scorpion’ have changed the nature of the form, for better or worse, but despite its delivery, ‘Kamikaze’ is very resolutely an old-fashioned album: 45 minutes and 13 tracks long, including two skits in which Eminem’s manager Paul expresses his concerns over the concept in a phone call (“Are you really just going to reply to everybody who you don’t like what they have to say about you or the stuff you’re working on? I don’t know if that’s really a great idea”) and Eminem’s furious return message (in which he says he’s going to hunt down an online commenter). Really though, who leaves voicemail these days?
The message, again and again, is that Eminem is butt-hurt. We forgot about Em, and moved on to rappers he considers inferior. “Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow / I can see why people like Lil Yachty but not me though,” he says, in one of his more measured barbs.
For artists like Eminem, born into an industry that little resembles the music scene of today, the ground has shifted underfoot. Celebrated in his early career for his battle-rap hardened flow and for being nasty and dangerous, he now operates in a world where opiate-speed rap dominates and in a genre that is, in some ways, pushing for nuance and tolerance of difference. So when he attacks Tyler, The Creator with the line “Tyler create nothing/I see why you call yourself a [faggot], bitch,” it’s shocking in all the wrong ways, and he knows it – the word is muted out, so why say it at all?
But there are plenty of moments on ‘Kamikaze’ that remind us of Em’s greatness: the shift in flow on ‘Normal’, the haunted beats and clipped chorus of ‘Greatest’, the Bon Iver-sampling ‘Fall’. Eminem’s always been at his best when he’s pissed off, and for all its ‘poor me’ posturing, ‘Kamikaze’ at least feels honest, something that Taylor Swift’s boo-hoo-Kanye-is-mean album ‘Reputation’ misfired on. The guests here are wiser choices than on ‘Revival’, in that they don’t steal the limelight from Eminem – among them rappers Joyner Lucas and Royce Da 5’9 and singer Jessie Reyez.
“Revenge is the best medicine,” Em raps on the title track. His revenge relies on how the rap world will respond to his throwing down of the gauntlet. At this stage, the worst that can happen for him is for nobody to respond at all. Old man shouts at cloud. Will the cloud shout back?