Kamikaze is an apt title for Eminem’s new album, which he dropped on an unsuspecting populace Thursday night like emergency munitions. The new project fires lethal slugs in every direction, including whichever one contains the nearest mirror, leaving scads of pissed-off listeners in its wake.
“Last year didn’t work out so well for me,” the rapper says at the top of the title track. By that point in the album, more than two-thirds in, you will be intimately familiar with how 2017 played out for Eminem. To recap, the former Slim Shady captured the world’s attention last fall with an explosive anti-Trump freestyle on BET. After turning in his best performance in 15 years, expectations were sky-high for the album that followed a couple months later. What arrived instead, though, was Revival, an album that earned him some of the worst reviews of his entire career. This (unintentional) crash landing is the origin story behind Kamikaze.
Part of Eminem’s beef with how Revival was received is that, in his view, critics seemed to just give the album a cursory listen before reviewing it. Admittedly, that’s sort of what I’m doing here, with this very post. However, this is not exactly a review. My one-listen hot take is that Kamikaze is way more in line with what I expected after that BET freestyle, rather than Revival. Eminem sounds hungry to reclaim his tarnished legacy here in a way that resembles how hungry he once was to get rich and earn his spot in the pantheon. Over a series of beats made by himself, Mike WILL Made It, and a slew of other producers, Em’s technical skills are impressive as ever, weaving clever, biting wordplay into dextrous, tongue-twisty speed rap that even Twista would appreciate. Aside from one absolutely unlistenable song, Eminem is either in top form or close to it throughout. Perhaps he had to go through the experience of critical and commercial failure with Revival to arrive at an album like this, one that earned a coveted LeBron James endorsement:
Now if y’all think this @Eminem “Kamikaze” album isn’t ???????????????????? you’re just hating and incompetent of lyrics/cadence/breakdown of his raps. Oh and he putting quite a few in a body bag too ????! ???? ????
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 31, 2018
So there’s the review portion done. What this post actually is, though, is a guide to what people will be talking about after they hear Kamikaze, so you can get in on that conversation even if you haven’t had time to listen yet. Let’s go.
1. Eminem is pissed about the reception to his last album. Like, really pissed.
Kamikaze is Eminem’s most existential album yet. It’s as though he’s staring down potential irrelevance, and shadowboxing against his own highlight reel. As mentioned above, this anxiety is fueled by the reaction to Revival, which he mentions directly on at least half of the album’s tracks. He doesn’t just blame critics, though; he blames fans for not putting in the work to “get” the album. It’s an attitude best revealed on opening track, “The Ringer,” which is destined to cost Eminem some fans. (Kamikaze truly is the right name for this album.)
I guess when you walk into BK you expect a Whopper
You can order a quarter pounder when you go to McDonald’s
But if you’re lookin’ to get a porterhouse you better go get Revival
But y’all are acting like I tried to serve you up a slider
Maybe the vocals should have been auto-tuned
And you would have bought it
But sayin’ I no longer got it
‘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
He’s not just mad because of this one album, though, but rather the general direction his career seems to be going in. On “Stepping Stone,” he gives an overview of his whole trajectory, dripping with vulnerability.
Bacardi in hand, never thought the party would end
One minute you’re bodyin’ shit, but then your audience splits
You can already sense the climate is startin’ to shift
To these kids you no longer exist
If there’s a unifying theme in Kamikaze it’s that Eminem refuses to go gently into that good night.
2. Eminem is no longer interested in getting particularly political
In 2017, Eminem took a big gamble by telling off his Trump-supporting fans during that scorcher of a BET freestyle. The gamble apparently did not pay off the way he intended. On “The Ringer,” Em seems to correlate the so-so sales of Revival with Trump-supporting fans no longer showing up, wallet in hand. At least that’s the calculus I see behind this somber lament over his own anti-Trump content:
That line in the sand, was it even worth it?
‘Cause the way I see people turnin’
Is makin’ it seem worthless
It’s startin’ to defeat the purpose
I’m watchin’ my fan base shrink to thirds
And I was just trying to do the right thing, but word
Has the court of public opinion reached a verdict
Or still yet to be determined?
‘Cause I’m determined to be me, critique the worship
But if I could go back I’d at least reword it
And say I empathize with the people this evil serpent
Sold the dream to that he’s deserted
It seems as though, from Eminem’s perch, the backlash to the freestyle was louder and more pronounced than the applause of those who enjoyed his risky brushing off of our bridezilla president’s fans. He’s not willing to make the same risk again. Despite the current political atmosphere being perhaps even more inflamed than this time last year, Eminem leaves politics behind on this album almost entirely, save for a reference to Trump as “Agent Orange” and a quick dig at Mike Pence. Now we’ll just have to imagine the album that could have been, had Eminem decided to leave his Trump-supporting fans all the way behind.
3. Yes, there are obviously some controversial lyrics
Eminem made his career in part by taking on taboo topics. At the time, that meant making fun of ailing actor Christopher Reeve and murdered fashion magnate Gianni Versace. Marshall Mathers updates the references in this formula on Kamikaze, with nods to James Holmes, Kala Brown, and Gabby Giffords. He also traffic once again in nihilistic animosity toward the women he’s involved with, saying on the song “Normal,” that “I love you but I fuckin’ hope you die, though.” However, the most controversial lyric on the album, already making waves online, is what he says to one of his acolytes: Tyler, the Creator.
Here’s the line: “Tyler create nothin’, I see why you called yourself a f****t, bitch.”
It’s a reference to Tyler’s most recent album, which seemed to be either his coming out as a gay man or an attempt to be perceived as doing so, in order to be provocative. Eminem’s line is not great, or even good or neutral. It’s bad. A bad line. It’s hard to believe that in 2018, we are still discussing Eminem’s use of homophobic slurs. Perhaps the most generous way to look at the lyric is as an expression of how much Eminem wishes it was currently the year 2000 again.
4. Eminem is mad at the entire crop of current rappers
Tyler, the Creator is far from the only rapper on Eminem’s shit list these days.
In his earliest years, Eminem was reticent about other rappers. Sure, he would call out Insane Clown Posse or the various members of ‘N Sync, but he had nothing to say about Nas, who was then in a decline (which Jay-Z eventually called out.) On Kamikaze, however, Eminem has a grandpa-like distaste for these youngsters and their music, and he has plenty to say about it. He distinctly mimics Migos’ flow on two separate songs, dismisses trap music and all its syrup-sippin’, face-tatted progenitors, and calls out by name Lil Yachty, Joe Budden, Earl Sweatshirt, and many more.
Also, the below lyrics are almost certainly aimed at Drake, whose 2016 album is called Views, and who famously has used ghostwriters before.
You got some views, but you’re still below me
Mine are higher, so when you compare our views, you get overlooked
And I don’t say the hook unless I wrote the hook
Eminem is so mad at the times for changing and he’s not afraid to make enemies over it.
5. Eminem’s group D12 broke up long ago and here’s why
If anyone was wondering what happened to D12, Eminem’s side project that spawned the hit “Purple Pills,” the answer appears on new song “Stepping Stone.” Eminem tells in candid, awkward detail how the group was already coming apart before founding member Proof was killed, and how his death in 2006 merely made it official.
Everyone tried to go solo, really nobody blew
I was hopin’ they do so I ain’t have to shoulder the group
The plan was put everyone in position so that they knew
How to stand on they own and I don’t want to open up wounds
I just noticed the oomf was gone when we go in the booth
‘Cause the truth is, the moment that Proof died, so did the group
Although Eminem ultimately says that he would still like to be friends with his former running buddies, it seems unlikely that the surviving members of the group will enjoy hearing their story so starkly told on record. It’s just one more example of how nobody’s feelings are spared on this scorched-Earth album. Kamikaze, indeed.