Just a few hours ago, basically with zero promotion or fan knowledge that he was working in-studio on anything other than possibly a track for the upcoming Venom film, renowned Rap God Eminem dropped an album called Kamikaze out of absolutely nowhere. Available in the usual places you can listen to stuff, I’m going to give it a spin and give a first reaction after just a little background.
His last effort, the Rick Rubin-produced Revival, was largely underwhelming to critics and fans alike. This is chalked up in some part to Eminem wanting to sort of please everyone in a comeback phase of his career, as well as Rick Rubin being an expert producer capable of being a mainstream hit factory. That’s not a dig against Rubin, although he’s had hits and misses in his career, my favorite album of all time is his work with The Mars Volta’s first record De-Loused in the Comatorium, on which both founding members claimed some of their wilder ideas were reigned in to make it more palatable. Someone as aggressive as Eminem who is probably at his best in a rawer form might not come out as interesting or appealing after being refined through Rubin’s major-label sensibilities.
Despite being in the right age demographic, Eminem has never clicked for me beyond the bigger hits and heyday stuff. I’ll own that much-maligned “backpack rap” label, socially-conscious “hip-hop” like Talib Kwali or anyone that’s ever appeared at an Adult Swim-affiliated live event, that’s probably closer to my bread and butter on this end of the musical spectrum. Eminem is undeniable, however, and any release shouldn’t be ignored. On a technical level, he’s easily within the pinnacle of his genre in terms of skill and creative risk. In a scene that relies so much on promotion and hype for releases, it’s pretty gutsy on his part to drop this without any warning, especially when right off the bat most people are talking about it being a return to form. Reunited with mentor Dr. Dre as a producer, it immediately sounds angrier and harder than Revival.
“The Ringer”, the opening track, has lyrics bashing the present trends in rap music as well as expressing frustration that Revival wasn’t very well received. But it’s pissed, and the production, while simplistic, is a classic Dre/Em beat designed for showcasing rapid-fire wordplay. I don’t think anyone in the present generation of MCs can twist a knife like Marshall Mathers, so if any “beef” gets started over Eminem’s lengthy industry hit list, I wouldn’t even expect any clapping back. What are you going to say? He’s old? Let’s see the SoundCloud face tattoo crowd at 45. Pivoting towards Trump and the press, he closes out with “I just took this beat to the cleaners.”
“Greatest” comes out like a follow-up jab after a haymaker, replete with a reference to Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and a declaration that he won’t take the high road in regards to “Revival not going viral.” Track three, “Lucky You” has the first guest spot with Joyner Lucas, who works so well next to Eminem and gives him a run for his money on spit speed. Self-awareness is evident in the two “skit” tracks, which are really just recorded voicemails with longtime manager Paul Rosenberg, who wonders if Em is only going to write about receiving criticism for his last release. Dr. Dre is equally guilty of that motif, so it isn’t surprising some of the most venomous tracks are reserved for those targets. Like most artists (and presidents), Eminem should probably stop Googling himself.
“Normal” returns back to favorite themes: rough-trade substance abuse, mental health issues, and horrific relationships with women. It’s the poppiest track thus far, until you get to “Stepping Stone”, which sees a more introspective and regretful theme backed by a complete banger of a beat. Grimy and shouty with a more R&B oriented chorus, it’s definitely a “third single” if Kamikaze gains any radio traction. “Not Alike” feels like a parody, after sending up the rap industry in “Ringer”, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Royce Da 5’9 seem to pull together a track with a lot of the same aesthetics seen in modern rap, almost to prove they can chameleon into whatever is going on and do it better than the progenitors while still retaining their signature trademarks. It’s dope, especially the blown-out bass beat in the last third of the track.
The eponymous track returns to Eminem lamenting his hatred for 2017. There’s a kind of circus quality to it and a lot of older samples and scratch work. “Fall” has some autotune chorus vocals that I wasn’t really into at all but I liked the almost vapor/synthwave approach to the beat work. “Nice Guy/Good Guy” is another weaker set of tracks, featuring the cartoonish vocals from Jessie Reyez and a refrain I’m assuming is a comment Eminem read on his own YouTube videos sometime in 2017: “Suck my dick bitch, you fucking suck man.” Famously some kind of bi-polar, and definitely not unfamiliar in his work, it’s still jarring to hear “I’m the dopest ever” and then songs revolving around insecurities and self-hatred. I can relate, I suppose, but it’s thematically hard to follow.
“Venom”, the closer and the only song anyone knew was being seriously worked on, has a great beat and is the obvious single due to connection with a major motion picture. The hook has some processed vocals that sound cool but seem a little indecipherable for what’s ostensibly the single. For some reason, I’ve always liked any verse Eminem does with cars in it and “Venom” has some great lines. It’s a strong closer, and even without explicit references to the movie/comic book, it all works enough lyrically to stand by itself.
Especially as a surprise release, which I think works to its advantage in terms of restraining hype to temper expectations, I think it’s strong and definitely agree with the proclamations that Kamikaze is a return to form. I’ve got respect for him using music as a therapy couch, and nobody can turn back twenty years to a young man on drugs breaching new ground, but I appreciate angry Em. “Millionaires got problems, too” has never been a winning thesis for me as a listener, so perhaps the best thing that could’ve happened was a Revival flop.