Review: Eminem’s “Kamikaze”
Eminem’s message with Kamikaze is abundantly clear, written explicitly on the wing of the fighter jet adorning the album cover: “FU-2.” He is not backing down, nor is he receding peacefully into “old head” obsolescence. He is sick of “inferior” artists claiming they know a thing about his genre. Is he right in calling them inferior? Is he truly the rap God he claims to be? That’s up to personal opinion, but all that matters when it comes to appreciating Kamikaze is that he believes he is. The confidence and fury he has stored up is the force which propels this lyrical wrath into motion.
When Alicia Keys sang, There’s no place like home, on Eminem’s “Like Home” in 2017, she foreshadowed a significant emotional progression in the rapper’s approach to music. Many critics today are failing to see that despite a reversion to his former style of dense, violent rap, the man behind Kamikaze has undergone a serious transformation. Kamikaze is intense. It is a scathing, vengeful retaliation at those who have called his talents and his style extinct. But while critics and listeners obsess over his outlandish assaults on a horde of contemporary rappers, they are disregarding a compelling evolution in the psyche of an undoubtedly talented artist.
In 2016, Eminem ignited controversy and criticism with a freestyle rap he performed at the 2017 BET Cypher Awards, when he told his audience, Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his, / I’m drawing a line in the sand, you’re either for or against. This vehement attack on a significant percentage of his own fan-base was like cutting off his nose to spite his face, and his sales suffered for it. After the 2017 flopped release of his album, Revival, Eminem continued his downward spiral. With features from Beyoncé, P!nk, X Ambassadors, and most frightfully, Ed Sheeran, this hardcore rapper had degraded himself to popstar, sell-out status. Eminem has been ousted from his throne of popularity by mumble-rappers with whom he has trouble sharing the spotlight. A grown man in a kiddy-pool, Eminem is embarrassed by his position in a genre over which he has formerly ruled supreme.
Kamikaze opens with “The Ringer,” a 5½-minute diatribe lashing out on the industry that has taunted his attempts to put himself back on the rap leaderboard. The self-referential humor of this song starts with the beat upon which it is laid: Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang”–simple, repetitive, musically uninspired. Rapping over the very beats he condemns makes it clear that if Eminem wants us to listen to him, he has to disguise it under the trash that we have been conditioned to mindlessly enjoy. Herein lies his overarching criticism of the trap genre, in its unoriginality and lyrical vacuity. He asks us in this opening track, Jesus Christ, man, how many times is / Someone gonna fuck on my bitch?, reinforcing the joke that the vapid vices of sex, money, and drugs are the only fodder for the trap genre these days.
Most controversial and headline-grabbing on this album are Eminem’s frequent digs on other rappers and celebrities. His attacks on rappers Tyler, the Creator and Joe Budden are particularly virulent. In 2017, criticizing Eminem’s song, “Walk on Water,” Tyler, the Creator tweeted, “dear god this song is horrible sheesh how the fuck.” And so, Eminem bitterly replied on the tenth Kamikaze track, “Fall,” Tyler create nothin’ / I see why you called yourself a faggot, bitch / It’s not just ‘cause you lack attention / It’s ‘cause you worship D12’s balls, you’re sack-religious. The callousness of this diss deepens the no-holds-barred approach Eminem has taken with this entire album. And in spite of this line’s homophobic overtones, it falls perfectly in line with Kamikaze’s uniform ferocity.
With regard to Budden’s past of domestic violence, Eminem raps, The closest thing he’s had to hits / Is smackin’ bitches, I do not hesitate to find some level of egregious hypocrisy. With a past of domestic violence himself–both as a victim and an offender–as well as a past of glorifying and normalizing sexual and domestic violence in his music, it is rather ironic for Eminem to come at Budden for this sort of conduct. Even within this album, he goes into his violent relationship with an ex-lover: Both got hundreds of charges, / Domestic disputes but we’ve always / Swept it under the carpet / Even when 911 gets the call that / I slipped up and busted her jaw with / A Louisville slugger. Be it self-aware or flagrantly hypocritical, Eminem’s standpoint on domestic abuse is jarring and intimately violent.
Always circling back to his appraisal of trap, Eminem tells us in his third track, “Lucky You,” I don’t hate trap, and I don’t wanna seem mad / But in fact, where the old me at? The same cat / That would take that feedback and aim back, I need that. The speed and tact with which he delivers this line is a marvel in itself, but the content is even more compelling. Without coming off as dismissive or overtly sour, he searches for the will inside himself to fight back, with his former vivacity. This line encapsulates the energy of the entire album, and sets a goal for himself: to unleash all the negative energy he’s been accumulating from the last few years of criticism, and spit it back at the world. “Venom” is aptly placed as the final track on the record; Eminem finishes strong with a chorus which reminds us that this man knows how to compose a catchy beat, while also sinking his teeth one last time into the necks of anyone who would dare degrade his name or his craft: Thinkin’ it’s time to go get ‘em, / But they ain’t gonna know what him ‘em / W-W-When they get bit with the–– / Venom.
Aside from the obvious headlines of indignant, vicious attacks, Eminem gets at Kamikaze’s message in a couple other ways, too–but these much more subtly. Amidst the competitive network of quick-witted rhymes, we also find love and humor. Eminem has not had an easy time finding or retaining love in his life. The romantic side he expresses in this album is not the conventional saccharine poetry we see in pop and country music. Instead, it is a tormented, indulgent, violent view of love that it seems Eminem’s upbringing has inculcated in him. In “Normal,” he admits, I know she cheats, so do I, I’m soulless, she’s heartless / No wonder we’re partners. It appears as though he is longing for a sort of connection that he is not equipped to handle, and from that tragically loveless cycle comes more of the ubiquitous anger at the world that he spews throughout this album.
Later in the album, on the penultimate track, “Good Guy,” he reveals a vulnerable side, in describing the emotional scars his attempts at love have left on him: Hurt me to my core, but the pain I’m in / After you, I swore to make the gray skies end / Here come the rays like wind. There’s more emotional cogency to this album than is accounted for in the average critique of Kamikaze, which exhibits a tunnel-like concentration on the disses and slurs. Furthermore, Eminem combines humor with a pseudo-social experiment in “Not Alike,” where he fashions his chorus in the style of a modern trap song, pulling the beat of Migos’ number-one hit “Bad and Boujee” and using nonsensical phrases like Brain dead and Eye drops to constitute a simple rhyme scheme. A spiteful satire of the genre which has “devolved” to render his classic flow practically antediluvian in the eyes of young trap-centric audiences is just the sort of middle finger Eminem has always been famous for giving the world.
In classic, self-righteous fashion, as per usual with Eminem, he has gone about retribution in his own way. Kamikaze showcases all the areas in which he has always shined, from his heyday to present-day. Incredible-pacing, rich lyricism. Defiant, crisp enunciation. Cleverly-disguised, indecipherable jabs. Double-entendres galore. It’s all there, all in your face –– albeit sometimes crude, offensive, and thoroughly unrefined. There is much to unpack in Eminem’s Kamikaze, and a higher degree of listenability than I had anticipated based on its commercial reception. I admittedly came for the disses, but I stayed for the message which has proven to run far deeper than a slur or burn. Revealing sincere emotion through motor-mouthed poetry, Kamikaze is nothing less than a revitalization of a genre sorely missed. Listen closely.