Let me tell you about an argument I had the night Eminem’s new album, Kamikaze, fell out of the sky and landed on the ongoing rap discussion like a bomb. A good friend of mine, someone who I look up to and respect, told me that I didn’t have enough respect for Eminem’s mastery of the craft of sheer rapping. He told me I didn’t acknowledge Em’s gift for manipulating cadences and delivery, for the intricate and dense construction of his wordplay, rhymes, and convoluted, airtight metaphors, or the persistent way Eminem stacks his syllables nonstop, building out some of rap’s most complex, thoughtfully-scripted verses.
Here’s my response: Eminem’s lyrical efforts of late have been a little like a game of Jenga; he’s endlessly building a teetering tower from blocks of syllables and punchlines without ever really building anything important or useful just to prove he can, and when any single piece is plucked out for further scrutiny the whole thing collapses in a tumbling tirade of noise and confusion. For a guy who traffics so much in shock value, there’s little surprise to Eminem’s surprise album or his music as a whole anymore. We know what we’re going to get: A lot of style, but not much substance.
Em spends a sizable portion of Kamikaze railing against his critics, as he has always done, from fellow rappers like Joe Budden, Vince Staples, and Tyler The Creator to rap journalists who greeted his last album, Revival, with a lukewarm response after that project couldn’t seem to decide what it wanted to be.
He spends a few songs reminding us all of his bona fides, that he influenced top-tier acolytes like Big Sean, Logic, and J. Cole and introduced the world to gangsta rap favorite 50 Cent, who is currently less known for rapping as he is for internet trolling and playing Kanan on the Starz show Power. For someone who spends so much of his time calling people sensitive for “overreacting” to his 20-year-career’s worth of trolling, he seems pretty thin-skinned about the prospect of having his content examined.
Rather than processing and integrating the critiques against him into a more measured balance of super rapping and songwriting, Em lyrically thumbs his nose at those critiques, burrowing further into the ultra-rap-nerd persona he’s been cultivating lately and spitting at increasingly supersonic speeds while still managing to somehow overemphasize every multisyllabic rhyme and cheesy punchline. All this comes along with dated-sounding beats that should have stayed in 2002 along with jarring choruses on “Greatest,” “Normal,” and “Stepping Stone” — the exception is the Tay Keith-produced “Not Alike,” which Em immediately throws into disarray by mocking the trap rap flow (that Royce Da 5’9 turns out to be more adept at) and actually sounding more engaged here than on the relentless torrent of nonstop rhymes that saturate the remainder of the project.
That isn’t to say the bars aren’t impressive on the whole, but to engage with any project is to engage with their flaws as well, a prospect that can feel like tilting at windmills when it comes to this artist (and his zealous fans). However, in this particular case, the windmill actually hits back, regardless of the validity of the argument. While his peers like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, T.I., and even (to a degree) 50 Cent have seemingly mellowed into their elder statesman roles, Em has become more prickly, more insistent on pushing the margins of acceptable shtick, much like an aging comedian who has found a less willing audience among more “sensitive” millennials who simply prefer the material punch up rather than down.
And why not? Em’s always fashioned himself a trickster of the highest order, lampshading his acidic takes just enough to soften them — it’s all just a joke. Except that the civil liberties and bodies of marginalized peoples are more threatened now than they have been in the twenty years prior. Nobody’s laughing now; to do so is a function of privilege — privilege that Em, to his credit, has tried to use to shed light on the plight of those squarely in the crosshairs of all this cultural upheaval. He did spend much of Revival slinging anti-Trump invective and did use his BET Freestyle preceding it to “draw a line in the sand” between his fans and Trump’s.
However, when he follows that up with the whiny complaint from “The Ringer” that “I’m watchin’ my fan base shrink to thirds / And I was just tryin’ to do the right thing, but word / Has the court of public opinion reached a verdict / Or still yet to be determined?” it causes the original stand he took to ring shallow, as if he didn’t get the response he wanted — welcome to standing on this side of the line, Em. The truth is, many of us aren’t surprised by the backlash against his anti-Trump tirades, because we tend to experience that backlash regardless of what positions we take — even if we take no positions at all. Truth be told, Em never actually addressed the bigotry and dissent Trump’s presidential campaign stirred up so much as he framed the confrontation as yet another one of his many interpersonal celebrity conflicts. It didn’t feel like he was against Trump’s destructive rhetoric just kind of ticked off at the man himself.
Meanwhile, when Em raps nonsense like “Jam a Crest Whitestrip in the tip of my dick / With an ice pick, stick it in a vise grip / Hang it on a spike fence, bang it with a pipe wrench” just to show off a rhyme pattern, he actually misses the point of “lyrical” rap — it’s to show that you can spit, yes, but also to show that you have something to say. The successors of style that he harps on — the Lil Yachties and Soundcloud rappers — have mastered relating to their audience. They just don’t need every single word of every line to rhyme and that should be okay. Just because Soundcloud rappers have incorporated melody and received a stronger reception in recent years than Eminem’s machine-gun-rap style doesn’t suddenly invalidate his own legacy or the value of lyrically-focused, heady material. After all, as Em himself points out, many of the apples from his particular branch of the hip-hop family tree are doing just fine for themselves commercially and critically.
But what it seems he’s forgotten is that all of them have made some concessions to the status quo. Kendrick, J Cole, and Logic have adapted to the woozier sounds of trap or expanded their sampling palette to allow for demographics that didn’t exclusively grow up listening to hip-hop. Angry teens don’t relate to Eminem anymore; they relate to Travis Scott and Trippie Redd, who howl their angst through a filter that includes both Kurt Cobain and Tupac, who listened to as much Linkin Park as Jay-Z, and who have inherited problems beyond youthful, suburban malaise.
Eminem should realize that in America in 2018, there’s a war going on, and no one is safe from it — not even the skinny, bullied white kids who used to make up his audience (many of whom have apparently found their lasting comfort in the arms of bigoted alt-right, white supremacist movements like Gamergate). Eminem refuses to adapt, sticking to gimmicky beats, retreating further into hyper-lyrical myopia or into reprehensible homophobia as he does on “Fall,” where he lashes out against Tyler The Creator, one of his staunchest supporters, for Tyler’s disappointment in his recent output. The worst part is that he knows how it’ll be received going in; the word “f*ggot” is censored, yet clearly discernible, as if he made a halfhearted attempt to acknowledge that times have changed, but decided that this is who he is — for better or worse.
I guess the real reason Kamikaze grates is that despite all Em’s work (which is evident through his technical skill and craftsmanship), despite all his influence (which he points out on “Fall”), despite the praise and adulation he’s received, it’s still not enough for him. He wants more and he wants it now. For all of Kamikaze‘s lyrical wizardry, nothing he says feels meaningful or relative to the experiences of the rest of the world outside of Eminem’s internet rap forum bubble. He seemingly cares more about how people feel about his bars than how his music makes people feel. His self-centered focus on menial concerns about acknowledgment seems trite after all he’s accomplished. He legacy is sealed, but being a bored, white man with seemingly nothing better to do, he re-litigates over and over to diminishing returns like it’s the most important thing in the world for him. Eminem may well be the best in the world at what he does, it’s just that what he does isn’t really cool anymore. The only surprise on Kamikaze is that Eminem, the “best rapper alive,” refuses to go out on top and preserve that legacy.
Kamikaze is out now via Aftermath/Shady/Interscope. Get it here.