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.