Eminem’s post-Revival album is a contradicting response to criticism that finally caves into modern trends.
2017 was proof iconic rappers are rarely able to stand the test of time. After sitting quiet throughout a trend that was rapidly growing, Eminem put out the critically-panned Revival. The album was the polar opposite of the rap community’s expectations, littered with pop rap features, abysmal hooks and exhausted concepts of failed relationships. Exploring the same tricks was a strategy that Eminem should not have been practicing in 2017. Merely eight months since the infamous release, Kamikaze dropped without announcement, evidently to right the wrongs of the album. To return in such short notice is a daring move, and must be successful if Eminem is to prove he is still a rapper with artistic creativity left in the tank.
In 13 tracks (eleven songs), Eminem does not push any musical boundaries besides his own. Kamikaze delivers improved production and technical ability in comparison to the low bar set by Revival, though continues to reinforce Eminem as a rapper rather than an artist.
The first third of Kamikaze is what Revival should have been. There is a submission to trends that benefit Kamikaze; the dated Rick Rubin, DJ Khalil and Alex da Kid are all replaced by modern producers Mike Will Made It, Ronny J and Tay Keith. Dated production sat at the top of the totem pole when it came to gripes of Eminem’s music. Thanks to this delayed submission, the pop rap clutter is absent for the majority of the album. Eminem also updates his song structure, incorporating refreshing beat switches without breaking flow. Flashbacks to the production of Revival grant greater gratitude to whoever persuaded Eminem to contact producers outside his comfort zone.
What is clear on Kamikaze is Eminem’s ability as technically-gifted MC. The second half of “Not Alike” and “Greatest” are only snippets of Eminem’s stellar displays of rapping across the album. “Lucky You” is a head-to-head rap-fest with Joyner Lucas blessed with an enjoyable rather than tolerable hook and a beat comparable to “A Kiss” off 2011’s Bad Meets Evil collaboration (“I got a couple of mansions / Still I don’t have any manners”). Another mention goes to the second half of “Not Alike”, a verse that embodies the title of the album. Tracks like these are the golden moments of Kamikaze that maintain replay value in conjunction with its intricate rhymes.
Rhyming words together has never been the criticism of Eminem of the past decade, although Kamikaze is yet another determined attempt to verify it. Once the fast flows are peeled back the subject matter is empty from song to song. Rapping involves more than speedy flows and double entendres, two conventions that Eminem uses as a smoking mirror. Wordplay is present for the sake of wordplay, which is impressive independently but lacks synergy with an engaging subject. Considering Eminem has always remained humble when claiming the GOAT title (cue “Till I Collapse”) the flamboyant “Greatest” is uncharacteristic of Em, recorded perhaps to boost his own ego amidst the Revival criticism damaging his confidence.
The greatest instance of Eminem staying loyal to subject matter that is fresh and compelling is “Stepping Stone”. The track reflects on Eminem’s relationship with the hip hop group D12 through an arrangement that is eerily reminiscent of 2004’s “Like Toy Soldiers”. It brings closure to a topic that Eminem has never explored in any of his solo albums, while simultaneously reviving the ‘old Eminem’.
Of course, the focus of the album is the critical reception of Revival, although there are multiple contradictions in Eminem’s raps. On the opening track “The Ringer”, Eminem defends the quality of Revival, pinning the poor reception to misinterpretation and, simply, being ‘mentally retarded’. The sentiment continues when he says “Let’s sleep on it like they did Revival” (“Normal”), only to admit “I took an L when I dropped my last album” (“Lucky You”). By the end of the album, you are left wondering whether Eminem has taken ownership for the failures of Revival or whether he truly believes in its quality.
Marshall’s criticisms of ‘mumble rap’ are the final arrivals to a party that ended hours ago. The contradictions continue when stating his piece on mumble rap, devoting buckets of bars to satirising the trend yet claims he is “Not even dissing it, just ain’t for me.” Eminem’s satirical take on mumble rap would be clever if it was humorous. Instead, the execution is resentful rather than entertaining. “Not Alike” had the potential to achieve this, though opts to compare how lyrically superior Eminem is to mumble rappers – ultimately stating the obvious.
Eminem has every right to dislike mumble rap, though his criticisms lack sting when he has been creating pop crossover songs for the past decade (cue “Love the Way You Lie” all the way up to “River”). Kamikaze partially redeems Eminem’s pop endeavours for remaining loyal to the fundamentals of hip hop, that us until the latter third. Scattered across the album and most potent at the tail end, the same issues that plagued Revival plague Kamikaze. The dual-tracks “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy” return to the pop rap format, featuring excruciating vocals from Jessie Reyez that makes the former song completely unlistenable. “Normal” is guilty of the same destructive traits in addition to the antagonising sung-rap flow adopted by Eminem. The trio of songs may easily have been Revival leftovers and defeat the purpose of Kamikaze rectifying its mistakes.
Considering the final song is designed for a movie soundtrack, the verses and production of “Venom” are satisfactory. The thin momentum the song held is sabotaged by the worst hook of 2018, its delivery senseless and idiotic. Bonus track or not, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth when recapping the concrete opening leg.
Context plays an important role in the enjoyment of Kamikaze. If Kamikaze was the album released last year rather than Revival, its enjoyment would be significantly higher. However, Kamikaze would not exist without Revival and its aftermath.
Despite the album’s strengths, Eminem cannot win. Kamikaze takes off smoothly, experiences major turbulence and ultimately crashes by the end of the 45-minute flight. It is the improved production and technical hunger of Eminem that keeps the album afloat. What Kamikaze proves is if Revival was not poorly received Eminem would have nothing to say. Since 2004, every album has referenced the failures of the previous release and aimed to rectify the mistakes. The question is how long must this cycle go on before Eminem restores his eminence.
Rating: 6 / 10
Favourite tracks: “Lucky You”, “Stepping Stone”, “Fall”, “Not Alike”