Critic’s Notebook: Eminem’s Surprise Album 'Kamikaze' Is an Epic Fail
The record is the work of an aging artist trying, and failing, to remain relevant by acting out.
Eminem is 45. His newest album, Kamikaze, is the album of a confused, middle-aged Marshall Mathers whose style and ethos are at least a decade past their expiration date. The album is a turbulent 45 minutes that feels twice as long. And, ultimately, it’s a big old bummer no matter how you dice it.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There have been few bright spots for Mathers this decade — or this century, even. After the collapse of his group D12 and a trip to rehab in the early ‘00s, he never seemed to reclaim whatever scrappy energy that defined his rise to prominence.
In many ways, he’s the bizarro Elvis. They both came from poverty and became the great white hopes appropriating a black cultural form. Pills and booze accelerated the death of Elvis, of course, but Mathers got clean, showing that untimely death isn’t the only endgame of megafame. “Stepping Stone” is a track in the middle of the record that feels like an addict taking inventory, reflecting on whom he may have trampled along the way and what happened with D12. And while his intentions in this song may be good, it runs counter to the violent, toxic, macho nonsense coursing through the rest of the record.
The record opens with “The Ringer,” which finds Mathers venting like an adolescent, “I feel like I wanna punch the world in the fuckin’ face right now.” It only takes thirty seconds of this album before he raps, “I’m about to rape the alphabet.” This sort of lazy, edgelord attitude gets old real fast and pervades the album so much that Justin Vernon has disavowed “Fall,” his guest spot with Eminem, because Mathers takes shots at other rappers and throws out “f*ggot” on the track.
Mathers’ style has always been somewhere in the blunted fog of horrorcore, where shock is valued above all, and Mathers dials the cartoonish and dark elements to different levels. But here, this just feels like retread. Even when he’s trying to be woke by criticizing Trump, it falls flat, partly because he uses slurs like “retarded” on this record in the same way Trump weaponizes casual hate. This isn’t #resistance music; this is music for Trump’s America. He’s reinforcing the most traditional white male American tropes through a classically black medium.
Almost a year ago Mathers was momentarily relevant again after his BET freestyle, which gave us lines like, “'Cause what we got in office now's a kamikaze / That'll probably cause a nuclear holocaust” and “I'ma walk inside a mosque on Ramadan / And say a prayer that every time **** talks / She gets her mou— ahh, I'ma stop.” It went viral. On Kamikaze he tries to recapture that #resistance magic with barbs like, “I empathize with the people this evil serpent sold the dream to that he’s deserted.” This is telling, because in reality, though he often tries to roast Donald Trump, Mathers’ music is probably consumed as much (if not more) by the right as by the left in 2018. Kamikaze is the aural equivalent of watching a Twitch stream or reading a Reddit thread.
Convoluted politics aside, one thing you can’t take away from Mathers is that his whole aesthetic has been widely influential, especially in Soundcloud rap culture, where beating women and being generally hateful and tortured are not bugs, but rather, features. Being hated seems like a running goal throughout Mathers’ career — he’s like an enfant terrible who conflates negative attention with acclaim — which aligns him with other seemingly lost middle-aged man-children provocateurs like Louis CK.
This whole record is begging to be hated on, and not just from a lyrical standpoint. Even the staged throwaway skits are basically direct threats to anyone like journalists thinking about criticizing Shady. They feel like bad Jerky Boys b-sides from the ‘90s. But, musically, there is also very little to be excited about.
The production — handled by a grab bag of the usual suspects like Mike Will Made It — is generic, and represents Mathers in a state of full confusion. The majority of this album feels like it fell off a truck in 2006; the other chunk is excruciating. When Eminem tries to croon on a hook, it’s just embarrassing. On “Not Alike,” Mathers is trying to co-opt Migos’ style, but it comes off like a dad pulling his back trying to do an ollie to impress his kids. And the album closes with the synergy-oozing “Venom,” which feels more like a contractual obligation than an artistic choice.
When he sticks to his lane of light sing-songy melodies, he’s in much better shape. But it still feels like someone doing the same magic tricks, to diminishing effects, with the same old cadences, rolling out the double-time gimmickry to a world that has essentially moved on. The technicalities of his rapping style — which is what made him famous in the first place — fundamentally don’t matter in 2018. His rapping is no more impressive than some middle-aged hesher shredding Steve Vai for 40 minutes in a Guitar Center. That might have been enough a few decades ago, but technical accuracy is no substitute for having good songs that people want to hear.
It’s odd, but telling, that Mathers chose to reference the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill for the album cover. That Beasties' record was notable for its brazen stupidity and chauvinism, and the threesome seemed to be embarrassed by it as they grew older and matured. They went from being the rappers who rapped about date rape on Ill to the sensitive musicians who wanted to free Tibet.
Aging respectably in any popular music scene can be extremely difficult, but the Beastie Boys — among others in hip-hop — have proven it’s not a total impossibility. The Beastie Boys and Eminem are still the two most famous white rap outfits of all time. While they started at similar places, their flight trajectories finally couldn’t have been more different.