By Brian Brecker
Eminem’s “Kamikaze” crashed in the ocean a mile off target. Marshall Mathers, otherwise known as Eminem, is a Detroit rapper who grew up in a lower-middle class trailer park and found an outlet for his frustrations in hip hop music, soon becoming one of the most recognizable artists in the industry.
When his 1996 debut album, “Infinite,” failed to capture the public consciousness, he funneled his anger and frustration into an alter-ego on the “The Slim Shady LP” (1999). His irreverant and comically violent style garnered the attention of Dr. Dre, who helped Eminem release the record. Many consider his 2000 follow-up album, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” to be a classic.
Off the coat-tails of controversy, Eminem became a household name. His 2002 effort, “The Eminem Show,” was similarly well-received, though many consider his fifth album, “Encore” (2004), to be the first sign of decline.
From there, Eminem struggled to reclaim the acclaim from his golden age. His sixth studio album, “Relapse” (2009) got mixed reviews. After this poor reception, Mathers challenged himself and released “Recovery” the next year to more positive reviews. It wouldn’t be until “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” in 2013 that Eminem could satisfy the critics.
Four years later, Eminem released “Revival.” To say it garnered negative reactions is an understatement. A few lyrics on “Kamikaze” reference the critical flop. Many fans see the album essentially as a response to criticism levied at him over his last album. On several tracks, he disses the media, online bloggers, and journalists who have continued to speak negatively of his work.
Eminem seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth on this album. The points he attempts to make come across as jumbled or confusing, and gives the impression that much of his response was not actually thought through. The problem is with these attacks on the media in songs such as “The Ringer,” “Greatest,” and “Kamikaze” is that he is attacking people for not liking his previous albums. This would be bearable if Eminem delivered his lines with his characteristic humor, but the jokes here refuse to land.
Another issue is that Eminem is already 45 years old and has seemed to be out of touch with the industry for a long time. When he attempts to diss rappers like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and the other new trap rappers, he boils it down to criticisms of their music that are very surface-level, while also lecturing them about their lack of respect for their hip hop elders.
He criticizes new talents for their music, and holds up the music of past decades as superior. Today, with platforms like Spotify, there’s more to new hip hop than what’s on Billboard and on the radio.
This lack of understanding of the modern state of hip hop is amplified by him calling out rapper Lil Wayne, who has had issues with his label and hasn’t released an album in three years. The climax of this thoughtless assault on youth culture is Eminem’s homophobic line directed at Tyler the Creator, a queer rapper.
Tyler the Creator started out with a sound inspired by Eminem, designed to “shock,” but has since evolved into more conceptual and melodic sounds on his recent album “Flower Boy,” on which he dropped the fact that he has “been kissing white boys since 2004.” Several other lyrics on “Flower Boy” indicate his queerness, and put Tyler’s controversial usage of the f-slur in a new context.
Eminem has always defended his usage of the slur as not homophobic, usually with the explanation that it’s not supposed to mean “gay,” instead pointing to it as a historic insult in hip hop culture. That already problematic argument crumbles when he specifically says the word to a queer person with the obvious intention of denigration, and then goes on to joke in the next line about that person’s sexuality.
When Eminem isn’t alienating his listeners with attacks on new music or destroying his legacy by burning bridges, he’s rapping about his continual co-dependent relationships. This has been an ongoing theme in Eminem’s work for the better part of two decades, and the way he discusses it hasn’t changed since he threatened to “tie her to the bed and set the house on fire” in the song “Love the Way You Lie.” One would expect a 45-year-old man who has been through several divorces to have a changed perspective on the topic, yet this seems to not be the case. The song “Normal” wallows in despair and self-pity, and he only occasionally ventures to accept any responsibility for his behavior.
Eminem’s refusal to outsource or utilize samples for choruses is ultimately to the album’s detriment. Considering that his flow and wordplay are occasionally excellent, it seems like a waste of his talents. Parts of the verses of “The Ringer,” “Greatest,” and “Kamikaze,” for instance, have some of the zany energy that made Eminem enjoyable in his early career.
While Eminem’s inhumanly fast rapping on this album is truly impressive, technical skill doesn’t do anything unless one has a sense of taste. Eminem and good taste may seem contradictory, but in his earlier and more well-received albums, he got away with his vulgar and offensive lyrics because he brought a fun and wacky energy to a song.
This sense of balance is gone, and has been reduced to Eminem yelling at listeners to take him seriously.
The album’s epilogue, the “Paul” skit, may have been meant as a joke, but it really only served to emphasize the album’s issues. Paul asks Eminem if the album is really a good idea and if he’s going to make a “Kamikaze II” to answer all the people that didn’t like “Kamikaze.” Eminem’s skit in reply is nearly incoherent, filled with him angrily rapping off uninteresting rhymes and talking trash.
That’s the problem with this album: it wasn’t made out of love for music, it was Eminem’s attempt to reclaim the relevancy of his previous successes and to lash out at those who hurt his ego. It lacks the maturity audiences expect from a seasoned artist.
You’d think that a man of his talent, prestige, and skill — a rapper on his 10th studio album — would take criticism better than this. You’d think that he would try and protect the legacy of his music, and would come back at critics in a manner that’s entertaining or fun for the listener, with an air of not taking himself too seriously.
Evidently, you’d be wrong.