Kamikaze–Eminem

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Have you ever heard the stereotype before of the old man ranting about how “kids these days don’t know what good music is; back in my day we had good, wholesome tunes that meant something,” or something like that? What about the person who claims their project almost everyone does not like is “just too deep for small minds to understand, so all those people must just be too stupid to hear what I’m saying,” or words to that effect? Or perhaps you may recognize when someone is bashing people in their field who “suck at being ______ because they do [this and that] instead of [what “I” do]” a bit more than the other two. Well, I apologize to anyone who might agree with his sentiments or who really enjoys this album for how it sounds, but I cannot listen to most of Kamikaze without feeling like all of it is no more thought-out, convincing, or meaningful than any of those previous statements. And it brings me no joy to say this as I have always thought Eminem was one of the best rappers in the industry now and maybe ever. I thought his rapid warping between manic craziness and literally rapping about “cleaning out [his] closet” made him consistently interesting and worth listening to. His controversies I thought were overstated, as I always knew it was a character of “Slim Shady,” who is dark, horrific, and distinct from the actual person of Marshall Mathers, and from the persona of Eminem for that matter. Eminem was the first rapper I was a huge fan of all the way back to before I even listened to a ton of music, back when I was just a kid. And once I got more into music and opened up to rap a bit more later in life, I rediscovered this childhood favorite of mine to be better than I remembered: a real technical, lyrical, and musical genius that managed to stay at the top of the game for an absurd amount of time by the sheer popularity and respect he gained. But after two years and two low-quality albums, my own respect for his continuing ability to make good music has dwindled, and I have little hope that he will seek to actually improve after what he has delivered here. While I do have a theory that things may not be what they seem to be on the surface of Kamikaze, overall my opinion of the music on this album is not a good one, and it would be difficult for this theory to change it.

Truthfully, I am having a hard time summarizing my thoughts on this album in a way that feels complete but pithy, so be prepared for this to go a bit long (if you have not seen already how long it ends up being). What makes this album difficult to talk about is how much it is steeped in its context, which I normally try to not let influence my opinion on an album too much outside of thinking about how it compares to the artist’s other work. However, Kamikaze is an album about its own context, so that is pretty much impossible. So first things first, the issue at hand on Kamikaze is, ostensibly, the reception of Revival, Eminem’s 2017 album and third of a series of critically unpopular Eminem albums that also includes Relapse and Recovery. However, Revival received vast backlash from fans, critics, and fellow rappers alike, and the situation was likely exacerbated by the fact that Eminem focused a lot of Revival on talking about Eminem’s seemingly decreasing relevance, not just as an active artist in the rap industry but as an influence on current rappers since so many different artists have moved away from Eminem’s style. It is apparent here that Eminem did not take the criticism well, and, using his “Slim Shady” persona (which the album’s credits make clear is what’s going on here), spends a large portion of Kamikaze doing as the album’s title suggests: dive-bombing those who spoke out in disapproval of Revival by ramming straight into them at full speed. Where this becomes problematic is how ridiculous his actual criticisms seem to be, with too little to suggest that Eminem is anything other than completely serious about what he is saying. This, combined with extremely low-quality tracks that sound like knock-offs of Eminem’s trademarked sound and themes, hurts my ability to appreciate what Eminem might be trying to do here, and takes away from the fire with which Eminem approaches these songs. The latter is in particular disappointing, as Eminem does sound the most invigorated and “hungry” in years (hell, almost a decade).

Musically, though, the album is definitely a step up from the dismal quality on Revival, which is abundantly clear from the very beginning and pretty much all the way through. The opening track, “The Ringer,” could be called the album’s thesis statement, summing up a lot of the musical, lyrical, and thematic content to follow. Furthermore, it is prototypical of the quality level to follow as well, for better and for worse. With a trap beat in the background, Eminem spends the entire song going through the list of people he has grievances with, and further establishes pretty squarely that the criticism of Revival is the reason he feels the need to do this at all. The song would be relatively okay if this was not the case, since the trap background is fairly limited and Eminem’s rap flow here is complimented well by it. There is no debate that Eminem’s technical skill remains among the best rappers ever, period, and he does make sure to point out that he does not hate trap music as a genre. As a result, the sheer audio of the track works very well.

Unfortunately, the song is pretty explicitly about what Eminem is saying, not just how the song itself might sound, and in this case that hurts it overall. The staccato flow is so fast-paced it hits blurring speed, making it overly difficult to keep up with what he is saying without the lyrics being displayed separately. It is even worse when he makes a point to say how “mumble” rappers are impossible to understand since they slur their words together, but I feel Eminem does not quite get that he is guilty of the same problem with a different cause. Worst of all, though, is the words Eminem actually says, which fall into all of the categories I listed at the beginning. To be fair, this would not be so bad if it did not come across as so desparate. Firstly, there are pseudo-punk/tough guy statements like “I feel like I wanna punch the world in the f*****’ face right now, yeah!” Then there are the actual reasons why Eminem feels his anger is justified, like his lengthy rant against critics of Revival saying, “‘Cause you missed the line and never caught it. ‘Cause it went over your head, because you’re too stupid to get it. ‘Cause you’re mentally retarded, but pretend to be the smartest with your expertise and knowledge, but you’ll never be an artist.” Finally, there is the terrible attempts at wordplay which fall flat and undermine the seriousness of Eminem’s tone, with lowlights on “The Ringer” being his comparison of Revival to “porterhouse” steaks with other popular rappers being “Whoppers” and “Quarter Pounders,” and the incredibly awkward “A journalist can get a mouthful of flesh, and yes, I mean eating a penis. ‘Cause they been pannin’ my album to death
so I been givin’ the media fingers.” It all seems nice and fine as sheer sounds, because Eminem was and still is amazing at the technical skill of rapping. But looking at what he actually is saying in these lines spoils the enjoyment of them, and thus of the song.

But if anyone reading this has not heard it yet, hopefully the video below works so they can watch it. If not, I definitely recommend one looking the song up if interested in what to expect from Kamikaze. I will say this: of all the songs on Kamikaze, this is the one that probably will indicate whether one likes it or not. So if you agree with me about this song, more than likely a lot of the rest of this album will be disappointing to you as well. On the other hand, if you disagree with me (as is possibly the case for many people, in general but also specifically who might be reading this, which is no problem with me; this is just my opinion after all), I think a lot of this album will be up your alley, both musically and lyrically.

Immediately following “The Ringer” is the track “Greatest,” which sees Eminem brag about possibly being the greatest rapper ever (go figure). Though the song does not simply have Eminem boasting about his quality, but sees him not-so eloquently continue to berate his critics. Like “The Ringer,” this would not be such a problem if the lyrics were better written, but we get a second “eating a penis” in the first two lines, with the only difference really being that he just says “d***” this time. The music in the background has a dark and dirty feel to it, though Eminem’s flow here really fails to hit on the track. Eminem’s smoother flow would have been extremely beneficial to the sound of the track, but instead we get the staccato flow again that just sounds disjointed here, making the whole song a bit of a wash. Following this is actually a marked improvement on the first couple of tracks in “Lucky You” which is surprisingly help by a Joyner Lucas feature. The song is more subdued and seems to have Eminem more humble and willing to take some blame for a reduction in quality from his music. While this seems a bit inconsistent (especially since this will be the only time we hear this out of Eminem on the whole album), its not unwelcome. The music backing the two is also pretty decent and aids the concept of this being a “moment of clarity” without sacrificing much, if any, of the bite in Eminem’s lyrics. For all his fame as an aggressive, attacking rapper, Eminem has proven time and time again with tracks like “Stan” and “Cleaning Out My Closet” that some of his best moments can come when he slows down and gets more vulnerable, with “Lucky You” showcasing that again (though not quite to the same degree those classics have).

After this a three-track segement of the song “Normal” bookended by two skits. The skits are literally a call-and-response, where the titular Paul character calls Eminem expressing concerns about Kamikaze existing as a call-out to Revival’s detractors, saying “what’s next? Kamikaze 2, the album where you reply to everybody who didn’t like the album that you made replying to everybody that didn’t like the previous album?” and tells Eminem to call him back. Eminem responds in the second skit by saying he will not be doing that, but that he is angry about what people are saying regarding Revival, and is going to the house of someone who made one of these “stupid” comments about it. While seems the same as the previous tracks, at least Eminem is making a case here and doing so in a interesting, narrative way. He argues that people are missing the wordplay he is engaged with, the real flow he is going for, and is even potentially doing a bit of self-satire by pointing out his own hypocrisy here, which goes a long ways towards making the more extreme moments of the album seem understandable. It is also admittedly kind of cool to see Eminem bringing back the device of “calls from Paul” criticizing him in skits, especially given how well it works here. What’s a real shame is that Eminem fails to do this anywhere else with Kamikaze’s narrative, and the only place where we get actual reasoning and one of the only places of clever humor from Eminem is in two skits, the only two skits on the album, which fall in the first half of the album. Further, they are less than two minutes put together, and surround “Normal,” one of the blandest tracks on the album.

Speaking of “Normal,” the song itself is not exactly a great argument for Eminem’s typical style and subject matter having some new ground for the man to explore. I will vouch for this possibly being the point in the context of the two “Paul” skits, but it is hard to really justify someone making a bad version of their own music to make a point in the middle of an album where Eminem seems bound and determined to have people take him seriously again. It sounds like not just every Eminem song about how “b****** be crazy,” but every rapper’s songs about this topic. Even worse, lines like “always gotta be so extra like a f***** terrestrial,” reminded me of the worst attempts at clever wordplay from Revival. Though I should not be so surprised by this, I suppose, since Eminem is possibly failing to see what was wrong with that album. Still, he did manage to fit in the line, “eat a monkey d***” to reinforce that continuing imagery, so we still know its on the same page at least partially.

“Stepping Stone” follows the second skit and kick off the album’s second half with another attempt at a humble moment a la “Lucky You,” but fails to deliver this time. The track is essentially an apology to D12 for using his membership in the group, and therefore the members of the group, as a stepping stone in his career, rapped over a sample of a female vocalist and a rock melody. It also basically says the group is done, which had not been officially announced before this point. But it is not any sort of drama that brings down the song, if anything it brings more intrigue to it. But I also cannot help but feel this is a bit disingenuous, as the entire song’s apology is largely based around Eminem not helping them more to progress by giving them opportunities, something he has failed to do again on this album. Maybe there was a peace offering at some point we cannot know about, but as I said before context matters a lot with this album given how steeped in events it is. The next issue I have with the song is the beat and Eminem’s flow at the end. The former is far too weak to really belong on the track, not bolstering the emotional tone at all, and the latter is far too hectic, once again not bolstering the emotional tone at all. By the end, I find myself having to wonder way too much at how genuine Eminem is being here when the lyrics and music make me feel like he might not be. And with the bipolar nature of the album thus far, I can only make assumptions.

The next segment of album, “Not Alike,” “Kamikaze,” and “Fall,” all felt a bit underwhelming overall being as they seem essentially like extensions of “The Ringer” and “Greatest.” “Not Alike” is an attack on modern rappers for not being like him, i.e. “actually good.” The song features a dark, trap-influenced melody that I suppose is meant to show how “I can do this too, I just choose not to.” Unfortunately, the song just shows that Eminem does not actually understand how to make trap music well. One thing that always bothers me with Trap is the choruses having the people saying one-word phrases after each line, since it always strikes me as a bit obnoxious if it is not done with a specific purpose besides it being a typical quality of Trap music. Still, those who do something well can get away with just about whatever they want to do, and Eminem having a guy say “Yeah!” and “Woah!” two or three different ways is not it. Maybe he’s making fun of this, but I was left rolling my eyes at his attempt more than laughing and/or agreeing. On the more positive side, the most effective part of the entire track is the Machine Gun Kelly section, which was probably the first and only time on the album where I listened to Eminem go after a fellow rapper and feel like it was not only justified, but like I should be cheering him on. It redeems the track somewhat and keeps it from the bottom of the barrel, but still does little more for me other than make it sensational.

The next track, the title track, is a bit more kooky, which, no kidding, was a welcome shift. It sounds here like Eminem is being a little more goofy while still making his attacks, and that is something classic Eminem did better than anyone else. Sure, he has kept trying to do this over the years, but “Kamikaze” is the first song in a while that I think does it well. Additionally, the reference to “Fack,” a notoriously disliked song in Eminem’s catelogue, as a putdown with him saying he will “fack, fack on everyone” and “everything” was one of the few moments a lyrical joke landed for me. Unfortunately, aside from that, there is not much to really mention elsewhere on the song as the rest of the lyrics are common fare by now on this album, so hearing about any of them will let you know what to expect here.

Finally, “Fall” is nothing more or less than a steady stream of bars insulting different rappers, which is only interrupted by a Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) sample; one that, by the way, feels so out of place it is no wonder that Justin Vernon himself did not know he was going to be included on the track. Well, I suppose there is also that set of bars where Eminem talks about who he influenced and brought to the spotlight, which undermines his message from “Stepping Stone” further and does not even make sense given that he lists off several of the worst rappers of the last few years. He caps that list off with 50 Cent though, who might be the only person actually worth bringing up. Still, I find that more disheartening for Eminem’s case than compelling evidence that Eminem has continuing relevance since 50 Cent is not even making rap music much anymore. Other than that, the only thing worth mentioning is that many of the controversies and beefs arising following Kamikaze‘s release are related to this song, so listen in for the context if you are interested in those. After all, seemingly ingoring the change in social landscape that has deemed this sort of homophobic content to be inappropriate at best and outright inflammatory at worst, Eminem decides to drop diss bars at Tyler, the Creator by attacking his sexuality (with a fourth “d*** sucking reference at that) rather than even trying to go after his artistic credibility in a meaningful way. It seems and feels cheap, though most of the disses on this album feel the same way (though I stick by the Machine Gun Kelly section being legitimately savage and probably the one case where I think Eminem comes out looking a lot better). Regardless, musically I do not see there being much of anything that earns attention of any kind. Its not great; its not terrible; its just there and trying to make people notice it.

With the final three tracks, it appears Eminem definitely dropped the overall narrative of the album, which makes for a somewhat unbalanced end, but one that did include one of my favorite songs. This highlight fell in the interestingly related tracks called “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy.” Appropriately, both songs feature Jesse Reyez, whose performance is as mixed a bag as anything on this album, making and breaking the each track. “Nice Guy” has her at the beginning and halfway through sounding like a rapping Gwen Steffani (which is as bad as it sounds, no pun intended), with a truly awful moment of her, after building up an image of a man who is nice, faithful, and goes back home after being at the club, saying “R-i-i-ight?! S-i-i-ike!” followed by an obligatory “suck my d***” (the fifth song with this image in it, by the way) and “you f***** suck, b****.” Luckily, this song ends quickly and leads into the much better half of the concept in “Good Guy” where Eminem launches into what seems like just more ranting against a woman and describing an abusive, hate-filled relationship that has ended and left a bad taste in Eminem’s mouth. What’s different is that Eminem actually delivers a compelling flow, narrative building that works and compels (a strength of classic Eminem material), and all this over a sample of a woman singing which originates from, of all places, either the soundtrack for the anime Tokyo Ghoul. But what really hits home in the song is Jesse Reyes’ section, presumably as the woman being discussed, coming in with a verse about how Eminem has bought the jury and convinced them that she’s in the wrong, but he is just lying to make them think he is “the good guy.” This sort of narrative twist is not something I hear all that often from musicians, and I found it very entertaining actually, a nice treat to hear in the album’s final stretch.

But then comes the soundtrack song, “Venom,” which is about as tacked on as is possible. It literally feels like Eminem thought the album was too short and threw this one on here to give the album thirteen tracks and a four and a half minute longer runtime. Worse still, the song has the half-baked, awkward qualities that most bad soundtrack songs tend to have, with Eminem’s rapping being the most laughably bad I may have ever heard it from him (and yes, I am including the worst moment from Revival which I thought were truly awful). The verse offend mainly by having way too many instances of s-s-s-stuttered words as a gimmick to try and keep the listeners attention. Nonetheless, the chorus is where the song majorly fails, as Eminem rhymes a ton of words with “venom” and over emphasizes the “‘om” to create a humming effect that is supposed to sound animalistic but ends up sounding unintentionally silly. I literally cannot take this song seriously, even after multiple listens trying to get used to the sound of it. Lyrically, it is not much better, basically falling squarely within the “edgy superhero theme song” box of songs about someone who is “about to break,” “take people out,” and otherwise “wreck the system,” man. Its not good, though being not good and a bit uncalled for perhaps makes it the perfect end to this not good and a bit uncalled for album.

I know I have been pretty flippant about this album and what Eminem is saying, clearly not taking it all that seriously, but at the end here I want to intimate why I simply cannot, now that I have went through the entire album in this review. To do this, I want to address something that came to mind as I thought about this album, and what I mentioned earlier is a theory I think is not being talked about enough. An important fact about Kamikaze‘s recording credits is that it lists Slim Shady as the rapper, not Eminem or Marshall Mathers. With Slim Shady being a character that makes extreme statements and over-the-top aggressive (or sometimes even murderous) gestures, it makes sense that the album could be in the voice of this character, divorced from the man himself and expressing a darker side of Eminem’s perspective that might not be the whole story or even the real thoughts of Eminem about the situation. The second “Paul” skit alludes to this as well, since it has the contradictory Eminem saying he will not just keeping going after everyone who criticizes him, but is revealed to be doing exactly that. If he intended this as a joke, it worked and I got it; its one of the better moments on the whole album largely because of this. In this way, the album could be Slim Shady, feeling tossed aside and like his life, career, and everything else never goes his way, is coming in for a suicide attack on everyone he despises and that he feels despises him, with Eminem noting occasionally how ridiculous this would really be.

So I thought about this, a lot, and wondered if it makes the album better if this is true. But ultimately, I decided that this changes almost nothing, true or not. For one thing, if Slim Shady is not meant to taken literally, where do we really get an indication of this? Other than the title track, the album sounds pretty baseline and typical for Eminem. If we are meant to listen to this album and not take it seriously from Eminem, he gives us no real indication of this in the music itself, which, in my book, means he has failed to communicate this idea if it is intended to be there. Furthermore, I think a non-literal interpretation based on the album’s persona being Slim Shady makes tracks like “Lucky You,” the second “Paul” skit, and “Stepping Stones” make no sense. They do not seem to feature a different Eminem, yet clearly have Eminem saying things the Slim Shady persona would not. If that was not clear, just the previous few tracks should clue one in. So there might be some deeper commentary, meaning, parody, etc. going on with Kamikaze, but as I see it, that does not make the album’s lyrical and conceptual problems go away. And they could never deal with the musical problems that also plague more than half of the tracks on this album anyway, so it could never be any better than average, in my opinion, and as it stands it is far from even that level. I found this album physically difficult to hear, and felt I had no reward for my perseverance. While I know many fans are eating this album up, I just cannot agree with this praise, as I honestly feel this is not nearly enough of a step-up from Revival.

I know this was long, but thanks to everyone who took the time to read this. I had a lot to say about this album (most of it pretty negative), and I hope it makes anyone reading this think about the music, if or when they listen to it, a little bit different and more than they would have before, even if they end up not agreeing with me. I also hope no one reading this takes it too personally; it is just my opinion in the end and I do not expect everyone to think exactly like I do. If you love this album, more power to you, and I would even love to hear what you have to say yourself in its defense. I do not hate this album with a passion or anything, as mainly I was just disappointed by it and by an artist I know is one the best ever, just like he says. This is the man who delivered The Slim Shady LPThe Marshall Mathers LP (1 and 2), The Eminem Show, Encore, and Recovery. He even brought possibly the first great and still greatest hip hop soundtrack to one of the best hip hop-related movies of all time, which was loosely based on his own life/mythos and starred him. The talent is undeniable, and it can be heard here as Eminem has lost none of his energy and technical ability as a rapper. But none of that means Kamikaze is good, and all of the technical talent in the world cannot make a song or album have better writing. He did not continue to prove why he is the “greatest” with Revival and fails to show it again, in my opinion, with Kamikaze, regardless of what the rest of his legacy might be going forward.

4/10

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