“Kamikaze” sees Eminem return to familiar waters.
For as long as he’s been making music Eminem has been angry. For much of that time he’s also been silly and usually, while ping-ponging between the two, he makes quite thoughtful observations. This, along with an unequaled verbal acuity, made Eminem not just special but one of the handful of greats. There is only one Eminem; only one rapper could have combined lyrical ability, pathos, and comedic timing to create songs about getting beat up at school and beating up his wife and not have it seem like he was completely crazy. Crazy for sure, but sane and self-aware enough to make appearances on Late Night Television poking fun at himself.
Anger is great. It made me love Eminem when I was a kid as well as other rappers like Tyler the Creator (a target of Em’s ire on “Kamikaze), but eventually we expect people to mature out of their perpetual states of rage (right?). Maturing out of anger is what made Tyler’s last album, “Flower Boy”, much better than the album that preceded it (“Cherry Bomb”). Maybe maturity isn’t quite necessary but at least an evolution, some kind of growth that shows that the artist (or any person for that matter) has changed.
Let’s not get carried away. Em has been through the ringer and he has come out on the other side, alive and healthy. He survived a messed-up childhood, a tumultuous marriage and a battle with drug addiction and he still has the fortitude to create music and entertain his fans. Not only that but, as previously stated, he is one of the greatest rappers ever. So there is no question that Eminem the person has changed or that Eminem the rapper is a legend.
There is, however, a “but.” 2017’s “Revival” was critically-panned (apparently; all I know is that I didn’t love it). 2018’s “Kamikaze” could alternatively be titled “Rebuttal” as Em repeatedly and forcefully responds to critics of his last album. It is Eminem as we’ve all seen him before: seething with anger. Listening to the first four tracks you could easily envision Eminem spitting the bars through gritted teeth.
On older albums, Eminem went after the media, non-rapper musicians (Fred Durst), rappers (Canibus among others) and politicians (The Cheneys). On “Kamikaze” the media, Die Anterwood, Lil Pump and #45 fill those roles. That doesn’t even cover a quarter of the list though. Here’s the whole roster.
Once you get over the initial excitement of Eminem’s wrath, you start to wonder, what’s the point? These petty beefs against contemporaries and meaningless jabs at younger rappers don’t serve much of a purpose. They don’t make for great music but they do make for music with some kind of meaning. It seems that Eminem can’t make music with feeling unless that feeling is fury. He’s a man in need of a target, a gunslinger looking for one last fight out in front of the saloon. You admire the speed of his draw, the unflinching gaze and the impenetrable confidence but you also secretly wish he would ride off into the sunset towards open country where he could settle down and retire.
Well no, not retire. Someone of Em’s cultural importance and artistic ability need not retire, but he ought to evolve. Personally, he’s done that and that’s fantastic. As a fan of his music since middle school, I’m happy that the man is alive and healthy. Musically, however, he’s stuck on the same note.
Talking to my friend yesterday he conjectured that Em was after the crown and that he went after the youngsters for that purpose. Jay-Z (the two rappers are only three years apart in age and both are absurdly accomplished hence why we were comparing the two) on the other hand is content to not go after it any longer. I couldn’t disagree more.
I’m convinced Jay-Z is still concerned with the title of GOAT, but he’s gone about it differently. He’s become a different rapper as he’s become a different person. “4:44” still declares Jay’s greatness (ask Kendrick), but it does so without posturing, without screaming, without all of the trappings of youth. “4:44” proves that Jay has matured and that he can make something beautiful. What does “Kamikaze” prove?
It proves things we already knew. Eminem is a master lyricist and someone who you wouldn’t like when they are angry with you. Beyond that, it seeks to prove that Em is better than the current spate of rappers. The trouble, of course, is proving something that was already readily apparent. Em acknowledges that addressing people who aren’t on his level will only benefit his detractors. And yet he does it anyway. It’s an insane endeavor, a mission almost no one would undertake. In that sense, the album couldn’t be more aptly named.
I, for one, don’t want to see Eminem commit musical kamikaze. I do want to see him do something different. Maybe this album will be the end of it. Maybe he will have finally gotten all of the rage out of his system. It will be interesting to see what that Eminem looks like.