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All it took was Machine Gun Kelly's hilarious "Rap Devil," a diss song inspired by a rap title that sounds like a Yu-Gi-Oh card, to bust a hole into Eminem's impenetrable persona. The diss was in response to being called out on Kamikaze, Eminem's latest album. He wasn't the only one to get called out by name—he shares that honor with Lil Yachty, Joe Budden, and a few other household names—but he's been the only to respond on wax. In four minutes, MGK decimates Em's whole character—a welcome response to Em's angry album worth of lashing.
For Eminem, the diss record was just his dessert. Kamikaze is technically sound, but it's an angry album. It aims its barrel at everybody: fans, rappers, and critics. It succeeds at angering each of these groups; why, you ask? His last album, Revival, was universally panned. So now, everyone has to feel his wrath.
After sitting with this album for the last few days, there are takeaways that I've gotten from listening to it.
Darker, in Em's case, always means better
For what it's worth, Revival wasn't a bad album; it just wasn't good by Eminem's (or, the true star of his career, Slim Shady's) standards. It was lifeless, bland, excessively dreary and, surprisingly, bright, if these descriptors can even be applied to the toothless pop records that populated the album's bloated tracklist. We didn't want more JCPenney's closing time music; we wanted more of the raw, ominous rap that made Slim Shady one of rap's most daring emcees. The very name Revival hinted at the glimpses that we'd been receiving for the last decade being a portal to the other side that would culminate in his resurgence. But it didn't happen. The album was another forgettable chapter with the audacity to parade itself as groundbreaking.
Kamikaze was a surprise release, and maybe it works that much better for it. It's immediately darker and more contemporary; the 808s and drawling bass here aren't quite new-age rap, but they sound much newer and more at home with the Shady that generates buzz by going against the conversation instead of in line with it. "Lucky You" is outrageously dark, the kind of bombastic 'Rap Caviar' entrée that turns the parties inside out. "Normal" channels the otherworldly gist of Marshall Mathers LP-era Slim Shady thanks to its spacey synths and peculiar structuring. Across the album's 13 tracks, a ploy for contemporary understanding is presented. Besides the prodding production and collective attempt at pandering to the new school, the political heft of Revival also doesn't exist. This attack on everyone may throw a stray or two at Trump, but the lion's share of it is for his detractors.
Eminem really can't take criticism very well
For someone that deals exclusively in telling other people that their shit sucks, Eminem is extremely bad at taking a dose of his own medicine. Revival was easy food for critics who wouldn't give one of rap's hardest a break for making what he thought was a politically sound album. They let the chopper sing, angering Eminem, who believed that the album was much better than they made it out to be.
Even now, on Kamikaze, Em is letting everyone know who he dislikes. But with so much of the album's animosity pointed towards his detractors, it's hard to take any of his criticisms of his contemporaries as more than misshapen strays. Through streams of filler that aim to stuff more syllables in them than brown rice in Chipotle bowls, Em lets everyone know that those who don't like his contemporary music are at fault. For what, we're not entirely sure. From the opening seconds of "The Ringer," Em makes his anger extremely clear with: "I feel like punching the world in the fucking face right now." He then lists recycled flows, Lil Yachty, and music journalists as things currently wrong with the rap atmosphere, then later reveals that a fan mailed him a copy of The Marshall Mathers LP to remind him of what he needs to return to. In this brief moment of transparency, Em revealed what makes him nervous: not that the game isn't for him anymore, but that he's not for the game.
Tay Keith can fuck this beat up, but Eminem can't
Rap producers go just as viral as artists these days. Keith's dark, yet simple, beat for Drake and Blocboy JB's "Look Alive" made him a star overnight; now, he's producing for the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Lil Baby, Yo Gotti, and much more. He can add a rap paragon to his list now with Eminem's "Not Alike." The beat itself is a more menacing doppelgänger to "Look Alive" that spurns and shudders with beautiful, lucid pulsing. But Eminem is clearly outside of his element here, utilizing a weird start-stop flow that just sounds meager.
His lack of understanding what makes Tay Keith's beats pop only grows more glaring in the face of the late-90s inspired "Stepping Stone." Em sounds at home on the made-for-whiplash beat that's completely up his alley. "Stepping Stone" comes immediately before "Not Alike." Right afterwards is the album's title track, "Kamikaze." In the face of dark futuristic synths, Em radiates artistic flexibility as he gives us more and more of that nostalgic bliss, even if he's complaining about Revival's composition and reception. Em's perfectly capable when creating in avenues that he understands; he's not quite as successful when trying to blend in with the younger crowd. Maybe he's trying to place the medicine in the candy. Too bad it doesn't work out.
He's hesitant to embrace his seniority, in some aspects
The return to Slim Shady, as evident on the excessively angry "Fall," has either one of two possible meanings. Either Shady is listening to the part of his fanbase that believes that his best work came when he was doused in controversial intent, and he's afraid to embrace the next step in his artistic journey, frightened away by the critical and commercial reception of Revival. Or, it's an indicator of both; a man on the verge of indecisiveness, hesitant to realize that the spotlight has moved itself from its perch directly over his head.
While Kamikaze is more technically sound and prevents a drastic step back, unlike Revival before it, the album doesn't break new ground either. This iteration of Slim Shady's controversy, particularly calling Tyler, the Creator a "f*ggot" then censoring it, feels more tasteless than bold. He's also quick to channel his contempt for his peers and underlings, yet also content to play in their playground instead of overstepping it. For a genre iconoclast above most of the game, he doesn't act like it. His penchant for blame feels more juvenile than any of his immature lyrics. Kamikaze ultimately sounds good, but its evil is exhausting.
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