Eminem – Kamikaze (Album Review)
On August 31, 2018, hip-hop veteran Eminem surprised everyone by releasing his tenth studio album, Kamikaze. The album quickly made its rounds and has already proved to be an enormous commercial success, having sold over 400,000 equivalent album units and having reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100.
Kamikaze serves as Eminem’s response to the backlash he faced over his previous album, Revival, which dropped last December. Revival was panned by critics left and right, and left the majority of Em’s audience disappointed. This seems to have really pissed him off because he’s firing back at all his detractors with reckless abandon and intent to kill. He is also taking shots at many big artists in the rap game and the current state of hip-hop as a whole, decrying a lack of originality and talent.
The album opens with The Ringer, a song in which, as he states in the intro, Eminem gives his initial thoughts. He is essentially rambling, bringing up every major theme of the album (bashing music critics, dissing untalented rappers, reminding his audience of his accolades) as well as touching on more specific topics such as his interactions with President Trump. The emotions here are very raw; this is the point of the album where Eminem is at his saltiest, best illustrated by his claim that people didn’t like Revival because they were too stupid to get it.
From a technical standpoint, the song is fantastic. I’ve always been a fan of long songs without a chorus, where it’s just bar after bar after bar, and this song structure really captures that sense of rambling. Despite this, there is still a solid structure because Em is constantly switching up his flow, and at no point does it start to drag on. The lines themselves are great as well; he’s got double entendres for days. My favorite would have to be this one:
“You won’t ever see Em icy,
“But as cold as I get on the M-I-C”
To top it all off, this is also probably the funniest song on the album.
Up next is Greatest, a song that I dislike for the most part. It’s got a solid beat and I like the complex rhyme scheme, but a couple nagging things keep me from coming back to it. For one thing, the hook is pretty goofy and not very catchy. Also, for some reason, there are these awkward pauses that play after each chorus, and they really bother me. But my biggest problem is that, on such a braggadocious song where he proclaims to be the greatest rapper ever, Eminem seems to lack all charisma. This makes it hard to vibe to it.
The next song is Lucky You, featuring Joyner Lucas. This is a special collaboration because it is the intersection of two generations of hip-hop. These are two very different artists, and they take every opportunity to highlight that. Joyner raps from the perspective of an up-and-comer, someone who has big dreams and sees a lot of obstacles in his way. Meanwhile, Eminem is the seasoned veteran with many accomplishments to his name, reflecting on what it cost him to reach his goals and questioning the direction that the culture has taken. The beat portrays a youthful, sporadic energy during Joyner’s verse with rumbling bass and rattling hi-hats, and this is reinforced with the wild ad-libs he uses. The beat during Em’s verse is spacier, and it’s mellowed out with soft piano notes, reflecting the deep contemplation going on in his mind. Seeing these two come together and make their differences complement each other—rather than clash with each other—is a joy to hear. This puts the song on a different level compared to the others, and makes it my favorite by far.
Another interesting point here is the way Eminem addresses the Revival backlash, as opposed to the two preceding songs. Whereas he only expressed anger before, hurling insults at his critics and saying that it was their fault for not liking his album, in this song, he admits that he “took an L”, and that it “hurt like hell”. He also comes off as very defensive at times, like with this line:
“Nobody could ever take away the legacy I made”
The line itself might appear to express confidence, but the fact that he feels the need to defend his entire legacy in the first place says a lot. It’s interesting to see this level of vulnerability displayed by any artist, but it is especially so for someone as successful as Eminem.
Following that is a short skit titled Paul. It’s a recorded voice message from Eminem’s producer where he tells Em that doesn’t like the idea of an album all about dissing his critics. This skit is aptly placed because after the first three songs were nothing but that, the next one is a complete departure from that subject. The skit comes just in time as the listener starts to think that this was a one-note album and puts the concern to rest.
That being said, the next track, Normal, isn’t all that great. It’s a song about one of Em’s dysfunctional relationships (since no Eminem album would be complete without one) and I can’t find much to like about it. It’s clearly performed in jest as if I’m supposed to be laughing along with it, but it’s not really funny. I think the poor vocal performance by Em is also supposed to be part of the joke, but it’s just unpleasant. I will say that, of the the two beats on the song, I find the second one pretty catchy. The quirky and unhinged instrumentation of the first one fits the “joke” better, but it doesn’t sound as nice.
A second skit comes after that, Em Calls Paul, where Eminem calls from his car to respond to Paul’s voicemail. He reassures Paul that he isn’t going to try and respond to every person who spoke ill of him. However, just as you start to think he’s over the whole thing, we learn that he is driving to the house of somebody who left a disrespectful comment about one of his songs, the implication being that Em is going to kick his ass for it. This got a genuine laugh out of me. It seems like Shady’s not afraid of a little self-deprecating humor, because he portrays himself as extremely petty with an overreaction with this, and I’m sure he realizes this. I mean, people were inevitably going to label him as petty for this album, so he might as well beat them to the punch.
The next song is Stepping Stone, a woeful track about the downfall of Eminem’s former rap group D12. He starts by detailing how the group was at their prime, then tells of the events that caused their decline, which were first set off by the death of their fellow group member Proof. Em directly addresses his friends, expressing the guilt and regret he feels for letting the group fall apart, and letting them know that he tried his best to keep it alive. They’d been making scattered attempts over the years to revive the group, but they were all but futile, and this song was the official announcement that D12 was over for good.
I thought the song was just okay at first, but after a few listens, I began to appreciate it a lot more. It’s really interesting to hear Eminem talk about this part of his past, and for him to be so open with his emotions. He comes off as corny a couple times, but that’s inevitable for such a sensitive subject, and that just means he’s being genuine. I’d also criminally underrated the instrumental at first, because I’ve since grown to love it.
Then Eminem returns to the main theme of the album with the song Not Alike featuring Royce Da 5’9, where the two veteran MCs double down on dissing new age rappers. This track serves as a tasteful and effective parody of currently popular trends in hip-hop. The chorus starts with a bunch of random words spouted out in a rudimentary flow (one which reminds me a lot of Migos’ hit Bad and Boujee), there are a ton of over-the-top ad-libs (GANG!), and it’s all played over a very standard trap beat. Em and Royce really go in, saying that these big rappers are unintelligent, they’re fake gangsters, and they don’t respect the previous generations that put them where they are now. On the latter half of the song, Em gets personal and goes after one rapper by name: Machine Gun Kelly. He has some biting words for him:
“Let me put a fuckin’ silencer on this little non-threatening blond fairy cornball takin’ shots at me”
Oof. Em is also none too happy about the inappropriate comments MGK made about his daughter, so you can tell that the anger here is real.
Even though it’s meant to mock this style of hip-hop, Eminem managed to make a pretty good trap song. It’s extremely catchy, and has the best hook on the album by far. It got me bobbing my head just as much as any Migos song, while having lyrics that are way more creative and interesting. That beat switch was perfect, too. It really captured the rise in aggression once Eminem started talking about MGK.
Up next is the titular song Kamikaze. This one just isn’t for me; I couldn’t vibe to it at all. It’s another one of Eminem’s goofier songs, but it doesn’t commit enough to being goofy. He adds in a few hard-hitting lines, but it’s impossible to take him seriously when the whole thing sounds like a circus tune, mainly because of that ridiculous tuba sound. There’s not much else to say.
Fortunately, following that brief disappointment is another really good track: Fall. One thing that immediately sets this song apart from the rest of the album is its nocturnal vibe. The beat, in combination with the ethereal vocals from guest singer Justin Vernon, creates a really chill mood that feels appropriate for a solo night drive. Despite this, Eminem’s delivery is just as aggressive as ever. Rather than clashing with it, the contrast works perfectly fine for me. Content wise, it’s more of the same: taking shots at critics and other big names in the industry. I will say, though, that the wordplay here is especially sharp. My favorite example would have to be this:
“And I got no faith in your writers, I don’t believe in ghosts”
One point of controversy that I would like to address is the usage (or rather, implied usage) of the word “faggot” in the second verse, in relation to Tyler, the Creator. This upset some listeners because it was, for obvious reasons, perceived as homophobic. I was right there with them at first, but I watched a video on the subject from YouTuber Shawn Cee which put things into perspective for me. For one thing, Em wasn’t really calling Tyler that word, he was just pointing out that Tyler referred to himself that way, which he has done on numerous occasions. Secondly, Em recognized the severity of the word and censored it, even on the uncensored version of the song. If he were actually trying to offend anyone, he would’ve been more brazen about it. Finally, Em has publicly stated in the past that he doesn’t use “faggot” as an anti-gay slur, but that because of the era in which he grew up, it is a more general insult akin to calling some a punk or an asshole. All this being said, I think a case could be made for Eminem being insensitive, since he knew the word would offend people, but I think it’s safe to say that he holds no prejudice towards homosexuals. He’s just being his typical, edgy, controversial self.
In my opinion, what’s truly outrageous about this song is the fact that Em disses Tyler, who is a genuinely good artist, but commends a total cringelord like Hopsin. I mean, come on. It’s still a great song, though.
Up next are a couple of songs that should be treated as a pair: Nice Guy and Good Guy. Both cover the same topic of a contentious relationship, both are fairly short, and both feature guest vocals from Jessie Reyez. With the amount of beat switches on this album, I would not have been surprised at all if these two had been one put together in one song. Of the two, I prefer Nice Guy, mainly for its comedic value. I at least chuckle every time the chorus comes around. The pre-chorus is really sweet and talks about how nice and faithful this guy is, but then she says SIKE and suddenly the song becomes very grungy as Jessica tells him to suck her dick. It’s not just a joke song for me, though; I like the grungy vibe and could easily see myself listening to this song on its own. I can’t say the same for Good Guy, though; the instrumentation and vocals are really airy, light, and sweet, which clashes too hard with the theme and lyrics for me. I would probably end up skipping this song the next time I listen to this album all the way through. However, Jessie Reyez puts in a great performance on both songs and completely steals the show.
The final song on the album is Venom, which is a song from the upcoming Marvel movie of the same name. Eminem ties in the characters from the movie, Eddie Brock and the Symbiote, to create an image of strength and danger to describe himself. It’s a decent song with a somewhat catchy hook. The instrumentation evokes a feeling of impending danger, and the synth riff is epic. I look forward to hearing this when I watch the movie.
Looking back on the album as a whole, this is a far superior project to Revival (even if that’s not saying much). Funnily enough, I’m glad that Revival bombed: the anger and passion with which Eminem responded are likely what brought the quality in his work. Also, he clearly agreed with at least one common criticism he faced, because whereas Revival sounded dated and out-of-touch, Kamikaze effectively uses more modern styles of production and trends such as over-the-top ad-libs and beat switches. That being said, at no point did he sacrifice his signature style. I see this as an important moment of growth for Eminem as an artist.
Overall, this was a solid listening experience. I believe Eminem accomplished what he sought to do: he proved that he’s still capable of making hits. I hope he’s not going anywhere soon.