In keeping with the homage to the Beastie Boys’ legendary Licensed to Ill on its cover, Kamikaze is about a white boy making a scene. Eminem’s own license to ill was renewed for the 10th time with Kamikaze, with little in the way of optimism that it would be employed to its full effect. Perhaps the expectations of Eminem are unfair at this point. While there is a natural tendency to harken back to an artist’s prime, when their career progression seems to show little of the flair and originality of their earlier work, 40-something rap is a new concept for stars the stature of a Jay-Z or Eminem.
But while Hov’s discography charters the idiosyncratic rise of an impoverished dope dealer turned billionaire entrepreneur, a uniquely American allegory, Eminem’s calling was always his temper. Whether dramatizing his baby mother’s murder or facetiously attacking his critics, Marshall Mathers’ rise to prominence was one fueled by vitriol and hallmarked by humor. It’s unrealistic and perhaps unreasonable to expect the musings of a sober, 45-year-old, multi-millionaire father of two, to be tantamount to the drug-fueled reveries of a gallows humored 20-something with a point to prove and a reputation to earn. But, the expectancy remains – and Eminem is fully aware of it.
While he has amassed a new legion of fans, fervent in their appreciation for his crossover collaborations with the Pink’s and Ed Sheeran’s, the hip-hop heads – of which he is one himself – remain unimpressed. The vocal disapproval for a seemingly incongruous change of direction in both content and new staccato style reached veritable indignation upon the release of his last album, Revival. Unanimously panned by critics and fans alike, none too enthused with its music or its matter, Eminem’s pride was admittedly hurt. Kamikaze is the result of that anguish; a scorched earth assailing of anyone who dared to doubt or diss him, that sees the Detroit rapper return to resentment for his muse.
Coming out of the blocks with “The Ringer”, Eminem covers the quintessential Slim Shady subject matter: peers, politicians, and phalli, in a rancorous rebuke of contemporary hip-hop and the current US president. The point here is clear, Eminem didn’t think Revival was great either, but no lesser talented individuals than himself have the right to agree with him. Pondering his position on rap’s totem pole, Eminem contemplates how he ‘might’ be the ‘best to ever do it’ on “The Greatest”. While a clunky chorus attempts to overshadow the song, the furious multisyllabic rhyme wordplay still makes a solid case for his assertions of being rap’s apogee.
While the hooks don’t punch like they used to and poeticisms lurk where witticisms once thrived, there are few, if any, better rap technicians than Marshall Mathers. Ramping up the syllable delivery to a blazing 11 in “Lucky You”, the collaboration with Joyner Lucas is Kamikaze’s acme, a breakneck exchange of phonetic entities to validate Em’s claims that even in middle age, he’s still more advanced than the present.
His double-time rap flow, record-setting in its word to second ratio, while not noteworthy for lyrical content, has been the most acclaimed feature of his work post 40. However, the livid legato of “Lucky You”‘ is not rap for rap’s sake, serving as a sonic spectacle to underpin his argument of being right in his spite. Manifesting his alter ego Slim Shady on “Normal”, an unexceptional throwback to the anti-feminism jocularity of “Superman”, he turns storyteller on “Stepping Stone”, a musical rehash of ‘Like Toy Soldiers’ and public apology to his former D12 members for the group’s ultimate demise.
The satisfying “Not Alike”, with longtime Bad Meets Evil collaborator Royce Da 5’9″ sounds like it came from the same recording sessions as the duo’s “Caterpillar” from Royce’s Book of Ryan and features a paternal threat aimed at Machine Gun Kelly for speaking on his daughter’s attractiveness. Meanwhile, the album’s title track should probably be confined to a deluxe re-release of Encore. The dissection of his detractors continues on “Fall”, a defiant offensive on all those that dared to critique Revival. An undefeated veteran of wax battles, dissing Eminem used to be a quick route to rap irrelevance (see Everlast, Canibus, Ja Rule), but perhaps with too many sources of frustration to contend with on one song, “Fall” fails to replicate the full-bodied force of “Go to Sleep” or “The Sauce”.
Arguably rap’s most potent purveyor of disses, fans awaiting a classic Eminem verbal vanquishing of a Drake or Joe Budden will be disappointed, having to settle for a series of jabs stiff enough to bruise the aforementioned fragile egos. Don’t expect a reply though.
Kamikaze closes out with a pair of undistinguished collaborations with Canadian singer Jessie Reyez, “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy” and a soundtrack cut “Venom” which, although in the title could serve as a metonym for the album, was a superfluous addition to the project.
As his rap idol LL Cool J once said, “don’t call it a comeback”, because well, it isn’t. What it is, though, is a partial return to form for arguably the greatest emcee of all time. While Eminem’s content has enduringly polarised his audience, his personal brand of absurdist horrorcore rap made him the highest-grossing artist of the 2000s and the biggest selling hip-hop star of all time. The enduring controversy over the content of his lyrics has contributed to some overlooking the fact that his wordplay ranks amongst rap’s finest, but also that his political incorrectness was the source of his widespread popularity – evidenced by his continuous decline in sales in its absence.
Revival was supposed to be just that, a reawakening of a dormant rap giant. What it turned out to be was an album marred by piano ballads, poor mixing, and unwelcome political commentary – from music’s most popular non-PC performer. What Eminem fans wanted was a revival of Slim Shady, the wickedly humored, unprincipled alter-ego of Marshall Mathers. Kamikaze is Slim Shady at his midlife best; slightly less deviant, not quite as funny – but revived, nonetheless.