Picture it. You’re getting into your late twenties, and you haven’t done shit. You’ve been abused, knocked around, ignored. You’ve tried releasing music, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. You’ve found yourself a little bit of a home in the underground rap scene, doing the calisthenic rap workouts that the Scribble Jam scene demands, but nobody has really cared. You know you’re good, but it doesn’t matter. Suddenly, though, you get discovered and signed and fast-tracked. Your first album is huge. Your second album, the one where you vent your spleen and worry about all the things that people said about the first album, is even huger. You’re the biggest-selling artist in rap history, and you know that shouldn’t be right, but it’s happening anyway. Your race, a liability during all those years on the underground, is suddenly an unfair advantage. You’re getting played on rock radio stations that laughed at your heroes, and you’re not even trying to make rap-rock. Parents’ groups are freaking out about you. So are gay-rights groups. You’re the world’s biggest star, and you’re also the most hated.
The zeitgeist moves on. Your presence becomes a constant. You make a movie. It’s a hit. You win an Oscar. Eventually, you’re not the world’s biggest rapper anymore, but the guy who replaces you, the sleepy-voiced New York mushmouth who calls out all the other pop-rappers while still making pop-rap, is a guy who you helped discover and sign. You get hooked on painkillers. You stop trying. And people still buy your albums. They buy the one where you’re in a haze, doing extended Triumph The Insult Comic Dog impressions. They buy the comeback album where you just joke about sawing people into tiny pieces. They buy the album where you rap about recovering from addiction. You even attempt a back-to-basics album, and they buy that, too.
This whole time that everyone has been buying your music, it’s been losing something. Where you once rapped with an inventive, assholish sense of joy, your music has become rote and charmless. You’ve been cramming syllables on top of other syllables, showing off your technical virtuosity with athletic force. But if your music ever had any sense of swing or playfulness, that’s been gone for years. You don’t ride beats anymore; you just try to forcefully dominate them. You’ve also lost step with the different directions that rap music has gone. The new kids don’t sound anything like the people you grew up hearing. But these kids still love you. You’re a constant presence on top-five lists. Your music still sells. So you’re totally insulated from whatever criticisms people have. You still get mad about anything anyone says about you, but you’re able to think of yourself as one of the greats, and that makes things easier.
But then it all stops. You put out an album, and everyone hates it. The album isn’t much different from all the other stuff you’ve been putting out in recent years. It’s got the endless syllabic sprays and leaden choruses and superstar collaborations and painstaking self-examinations and anthemic-mush beats and obvious butt-rock samples and scatological non-jokes — all the things that people have either loved or tolerated from you for years. But it doesn’t work anymore. Your music now seems painfully out of step, both with rap music and with the world in general. You’ve tried to take an admirable stand against a corrupt and hateful president, which has lost you some fans. But it hasn’t really gained you any admirers, either, since people have started to notice that you helped create the atmosphere where the guy could get elected in the first place.
You read criticism after criticism, and the worst part is that you know they’re right. You’re not one of the greats anymore. You don’t even know what people want from you anymore. And so you freak the fuck out. In fact, you quickly bash out an entire album of yourself freaking the fuck out.
Kamikaze is that album.
The good news about Kamikaze, the new album that Eminem surprise-released on Friday, is that it’s easily the best Eminem album in more than a decade. The bad news is that it still sucks. On the one hand, the album represents an honest good-faith attempt to engage with where rap finds itself now — with the production, the subject matter, the tenor. It finds Eminem attempting to rein in some of his own worst impulses. The cartoon voices and toilet humor and dumb rock samples are gone; the wife-killing narratives are almost gone. Instead, Eminem tries to flex hard, to showcase his basically unparalleled technical skills while venting his own inner turmoil. But he does it while all the wounds are still fresh, and so he ends up attempting to impress his old fans while at the same time saying that those fans are idiots for not appreciating the music he’s already been making. (At one point, he literally calls his critics “mentally retarded” because they’re “too stupid to get it.”) It’s a conflicted lash-out, a please come back and a fuck you, go away at the same time.
All of this makes for terribly compelling listening. Eminem adapts a Migos flow to talk about how he doesn’t hate trap but actually, come to think of it, he does hate trap. He throws a homophobic slur at Tyler, The Creator, probably the most prominent Eminem admirer to come along in the past decade. Tyler used to use that same slur constantly, and then he apparently came out on his last album, and he also had the temerity to say that Em’s terrible single “Walk On Water” was terrible, so apparently he’s fair game for whatever Em wants to spew at him. Em asks, “Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow everyone copies though?” in that same choppy flow. He says Trump is afraid to respond to Em for fear he’ll “lyrically get murdered” but then claims, in the same breath, that his — Eminem’s — real enemy is “the media.” He references hits from Kendrick Lamar (“Revival didn’t go viral!”) and Playboi Carti (“woke up to honkies sounding like me!”). He considers the idea that he should’ve empathized with Trump’s voters, and then he invites Joyner Lucas, whose viral hit “I’m Not Racist” did empathize with Trump’s voters, to rap just like Eminem. It’s a lot.
Musically, Kamikaze is a rare indication that Eminem actually listens to current rap, or at least that some stuff has made its way through his shell. He raps over beats from surging of-the-moment rap producers like Mike Will Made-It, Tay Keith, and even SoundCloud-rap baron Ronny J. And he does his best to stick to those beats, switching up his flows and even slowing them down for entire seconds at a time. But while he’s figuring out what to do with those beats, he’s decrying the mumble-rappers who also used those beats, or he’s fulminating over how his last album might’ve sold if he’d used Auto-Tune, or he’s blasting individual rappers for biting his old collaborator Lil Wayne. It’s honestly fun to hear Em name names — Machine Gun Kelly, Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty — but it’d be even more fun if he was going after rappers who were anywhere near his stature. And anyway, the best response to Em thus far hasn’t been MGK’s angry clap-back; it’s been a since-deleted Lil Yachty tweet where he was pretty much just like “lol that’s cool.”
There are detours. Em gets back to his sneery, tempestuous relationship-rap for a few songs. “Stepping Stone” works as a heartfelt mea culpa and farewell to his old D12 buddies, and it might be the best song on the album despite its atonal chorus. There’s an awkward movie tie-in where Em attempt to force connections between his own life story to a Marvel movie that looks honestly godawful. Really, though, this is a concept LP about how nobody liked his last album. It feels like something Em recorded during a week-long bad mood. For an Eminem album, it’s short. And it’s light on obvious pop-radio-bait pop-star collabs. (On Kamikaze, the role of Rihanna is filled, almost inexplicably, by Bon Iver’s instantly regretful Justin Vernon.) It’s a tantrum in album form.
Eminem has been recording tantrums for a long time, but they’re usually directed at the women in his life. That happens on Kamikaze, too. On “Normal,” Eminem freaks out on an on-and-off girlfriend, accusing her of cheating or of getting back at him by dressing sexy when she goes out. He complains that she’s being “extra, like a fuckin’ terrestrial.” As the song progresses, he’s rapping about putting tracking devices on her car or hitting her with a baseball bat. And that’s where the plausible deniability comes in. Em’s exaggerating things to ridiculous extents, so we know he’s making dark jokes, not being serious. It’s the most poisonous form of self-awareness, the kind that just dares you to get offended or triggered.
By that same token, Eminem includes a phone message from his perpetually tortured longtime manager, who tells him that he should maybe relax: “What’s next? Kamikaze 2, the album where you reply to everybody who didn’t like the album you made replying to everybody that didn’t like the previous album? It’s a slippery slope.” A track later, Em calls him back, saying that no, he’s not replying to everybody, but he just has to go kill this one blog commenter real quick. So: Eminem knows that he shouldn’t keep reacting to his last reactions, but he can’t help himself. It’s like he’s switched one kind of addiction for another. Maybe he should just shut up and go be rich for a while.
1. Sheck Wes – “Chippi Chippi”
More rap beats should sound like ’70s horror-movie synth-drones. And you can tell Sheck Wes is a Travis Scott protege because he’s quickly figured out that stuff like that is way more important than actual rapping.
2. Joey Purp – “Elastic”
Hip-house will never die. Especially in Chicago. This is the finest piece of hip-house to come out of the SaveMoney crew since Chance The Rapper’s “All Night,” which was the finest piece of hip-house to come out of the SaveMoney crew since Vic Mensa’s “Down On My Luck.”
3. Lil Gray – “Money Counter”
Sometimes, mid-song beat-switches feel awkward and forced, like someone smashed two unfinished songs into each other. But this one just lurches, and it’s oddly thrilling, like that first jerk when the roller coaster starts.
4. Charlie Heat – “WWYA” (Feat. Lil Baby & G Herbo)
I firmly object to G Herbo making songs with Lil Baby instead of Lil Bibby, but this goes anyway.
5. Yungeen Ace – “Pain”
Leaving aside how this song sounds — and I don’t think it sounds great — what we have here is a teenage rapper processing a deeply traumatic event in real time, in public. Less than three months ago, Yungeen Ace was in a car with three friends, and that car was riddled with bullets. He was shot eight times. All his friends were killed. And here he is, working through it, trying to process it. It’s amazing that this even exists, that we can all sit here at our computers and hear it happening.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Chris D'Elia (@chrisdelia) September 1, 2018