ROUNDTABLE: Eminem - Kamikaze
by Robert Apps-Hoare, David Crone, Thom Vigor
It feels like for 10 years or more people have been clamouring for the return of the “old Eminem”. The man who was once the world’s most popular rapper has veered in an increasingly more mainstream direction for the past decade and has tarnished his reputation in the minds of many hardcore rap fans. Both of his previous albums were hyped as “a return to form” during the rollout period, only to fall flat and be buoyed mostly by radio singles and pop features. The latter, Revival, saw Eminem suffer his worst album debut ever in his native US, proving that throwing a bunch of washed up chart stars on your hooks doesn’t guarantee you record breaking success if the raw material is simply mediocre.
Kamikaze isn’t so much a breath of fresh air as it is a sheer shock to the system. No one is surprised to see Em rapping like this and so freely insulting his competition on record, but few would have anticipated it had you asked them the day after Revival dropped last year. The first track, The Ringer, is the longest on the album, and though bouncy and energetic, it is essentially over 5 minutes of raw hip hop delivered like an irate politician’s stump speech. Yet it has instantly become one of the album’s most popular hits on streaming services. Paradoxically, Eminem seems to have regained his confidence through having it so thoroughly broken down. He no longer feels the need, on this album at least, to break up and separate his verses with Beyonce hooks or overwrought 80s rock samples. He can do the whole job himself.
But Kamikaze is far from an “old school hip hop” album. This isn’t strict bars, but it is classic Eminem flair – so much so that the record probably could convincingly have been titled “The Slim Shady LP 2” if its author had been bold enough to risk it. On tracks like Greatest and Stepping Stone, Em brings in catchy layered vocal hooks reminiscent of his early noughties work. Both songs also demonstrate how rock and guitar elements should be incorporated in hip hop – sparingly and subtly, not sledgehammered over the head as was done on Revival. Normal, meanwhile, is backed by eerie and foreboding percussion and slides into a simply lushious beat switch in the latter half that fits the jittery tone of the track like a glove.
When features are used, they are either fellow rappers – like Joyner Lucas who sweetly compliments Em’s style, and long time collaborator Royce Da 5’9 – or they are decidedly off kilter, like Jessie Reyez’s contributions to Nice Guy and Good Guy. The Canadian singer screams and croons alongside the pained-yet-comic lyrics of Marshall Mathers, calling back to a time when this album’s protagonist was able to inject serious topics into his music while still tempering them with a dark humour. Similarly, Not Alike, where Royce features, mocks trap music and mumble rap by warping Tay Keith production in a way that seems to be poking fun at new age rap while still acknowledging its simple-yet-enjoyable hit-making qualities.
As a fan of Eminem, though not a Stan, I hope that Kamikaze is the first step back to glory for the man who is widely recognised as the world’s master lyricist. This is exactly the album that braying crowds have been crying out for from Em for years. But there is still work to be done, and it will be up to Mr Mathers himself to decide whether this record will be the book-end to his impressive career, or the beginning of a third, more gripping chapter.
Individual Rating: 4⁄5
Picks: Lucky You, Normal, Not Alike, Fall
Let’s be frank: Revival was not a good album. While there were a few gems tucked away, they were a far cry from the genre-shaking colossus we’d come to know from the Slim Shady LP, Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. And, if Kamikaze shows one thing, it’s clear that this failure has hit Eminem hard. Kamikaze does everything Revival didn’t, breaking through 2017 Eminem’s stale pop sounds with a fist-pumping, impassioned breed of lyricism.
Every song on Kamikaze is packed with the hallmarks of excellent hip-hop, featuring dynamic flow-swapping, consistent energy and well-executed lyricism. While the album has its lower moments (Nice Guy feels a little clunky and Venom a bit corporate), it applies Eminem’s revitalised style to shift through despondency, braggadocio and mania, covering topics from using his friends as “stepping stones” to having intense Stockholm syndrome in a violent relationship.
The tone is clear from the start – opening statement The Ringer begins with a gravelly “I feel like I want to punch the world in the f*cking face right now.” And indeed he does, firing 5 minutes of bars at rapper after rapper, delivering wordplay and diss in equal measure. The Ringer’s blend of technicality and bravado make for an utterly impressive opener: as legendary radio host Big Boy recently stated, “if you listen to this Ringer right here, The Ringer, and you say that it’s whack, Hip-Hop is really in a sad state”.
As has been made clear by countless publications, Kamikaze is flooded with disses. Often this comes in simplistic forms – on The Ringer, Em imitates the Gucci Gang flow to claim Lil Pump and Lil Xan are just poor Weezy imitators, while on Kamikaze he delivers the unsubtle yet hilarious “I might have to fuck Pitchfork with a corkscrew”. Amongst these are a flood of excellent one liners, from Fall’s “I got no faith in your writers, I don’t believe in ghosts” to the Not Alike’s comparison of R Kelly and fellow rapper MGK. Eminem has words for everyone, and for the most part they land.
Focusing on solely the disses and lyricism is fantastic, but it’s Em’s flow and energy that carries this project forward. Such is the case on standout banger Lucky You, an expertly-paired lyrical torrent from Em and newcomer Joyner Lucas. Across 4 minutes, we’re given outstanding mirrored verses from both rappers, reaching breakneck speeds with flows worthy of any GOAT contender. And this isn’t the brand of speed rap that’s come to categorize the ‘real-rap’ crowd either: both Em and Joyner’s verses are wordplay and content-laden, giving us one of the most exciting rap songs of the year.
Kamikaze is pretty much what we need from Eminem in 2018. While it’s not a perfect album by any means, it’s euphoric to see Eminem storm back into the rap game with such energy and passion. Much like its title, Kamikaze is explosive with purpose, delivering bar after bar with a passion and skill worthy of its iconic creator.
Individual Rating: 4⁄5
Picks: The Ringer, Lucky You, Normal, Kamikaze
Eminem’s latest project has come out less than a year after his last endeavour, Revival, which many critics considered the biggest flop of his career – Kamikaze is Eminem’s response to those who claimed he had lost his relevance as an MC, and that his music had lost the ‘bite’ that characterised his earlier albums. Kamikaze is sudden, loud and unapologetic – pretty much the opposite of the bloated and uninspired Revival, which has clearly become something of a sore spot for Eminem. Throughout Kamikaze Eminem complains about the negative reception of his most recent music, by fans and critics alike, as well as the current state of hip-hop, dissing a bunch of rappers including Lil Pump, Tyler the Creator, Vince Staples, Joe Budden and more. Although Eminem’s abrasive attitude throughout Kamikaze is refreshing, it often feels like he’s just being controversial for the sake of trying to maintain relevance in a world that has changed so much since the days of Slim Shady.
The album begins with the sound of a crash, presumably as the ‘FU-2’ jet depicted on the album’s cover crashes as Eminem metaphorically kamikazes – however the track that follows, The Ringer, struggles to get the high energy of the album going with its sluggish beat, even with Eminem shouting “I wanna punch the world in the f***in’ face right now”. This aggressive attitude continues as the Detroit rapper disses a plethora of young MC’s throughout the rest of the track, and indeed throughout the rest of the album. It starts to feel a bit like an old man shaking his fist and yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn, reminiscing fondly back to the good old days and wondering why the kids couldn’t be more like he was when he was younger.
The remainder of the album feels very similar to its opener, with Eminem rapping aggressively over some pretty mediocre beats about why he’s still the best and how the critics are wrong, instead of trying to age gracefully and accept that his days as a cutting-edge young rapper have come and gone. Thankfully the album doesn’t go on for too long at 45 minutes, but despite its short runtime it does still start to get a bit repetitive – nowhere close to Revival’s soul-crushing 77 minutes, though. Kamikaze is certainly an improvement on its predecessor, however that isn’t saying much. Eminem’s return to the aggression of his earlier music is a valiant effort… But it’s just not the same anymore.
Individual Rating: 2⁄5