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Eminem’s 'Kamikaze' Is a Stale Misfire

The rapper's ninth studio album reveals an Eminem who's frustrated with the narrative, but seems to misunderstand the beast he’s up against if he wants to confront his detractors.

by Paul Thompson
05 September 2018, 1:19am

Eminem performing at Bonnaroo. Photo by Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images.

This is a video by a long-haired man named Styxhexenhammer666, who has more than 277,000 subscribers on YouTube and whose Patreon nets him exactly $4,182 every month, which works out to $50,184 per year before taxes. He posts frequently about the occult and about his garden and has taken to vlogging in a leather jacket with no shirt underneath. I am not going to try to describe the scope of Styxhexenhammer666’s channel, because it flits from “300 Million in Aid to Pakistan Cancelled Over Lack of Progress Fighting Militants” to “Yes We Must #StopTheBias Against Content Creators,” from “Stalin Style! ABC and MSNBC Disappear Farrakhan From the Aretha Franklin Funeral” to “My Honest Ratings of the Star Wars Movies (Spoilers, Obviously).” He brags about supposedly Trump-induced consumer confidence and posts videos of himself eating military rations (“you will get some spoon clank here”). Almost every video starts with “Alright, everyone.” He calls things like advertising models “retarded” and things like this his “literary works.” He talks extensively about “the occult” and takes the posture of a knowing, from-the-fringes political maverick; he has almost 50,000 Twitter followers and uses that feed to push talking points—Flint is run by Democrats, and etc.—that are paint-by-numbers Republican obfuscation.

“The Left Attacks Eminem for Using Slurs: Let Me Know How That Works For Y’all” oversells its premise. There are, to be sure, people who have taken issue with Eminem calling Tyler, the Creator a “faggot” on Kamikaze, his ninth album, which he released without warning over the weekend. But there is no outrage in the way Styxhexenhammer666 and his viewers imagine outrage. There are no parents groups marching and no earnest twentysomethings picketing. There are just people shaking their heads at a middle-aged rapper, seeing their tweets aggregated by Yahoo, and moving on with their days. “The Left Attacks” spends some time recounting Eminem’s commercial peak, but mostly unspools into a screed against the left—or “the non-right,” Styxhexenhammer666 corrects himself—and explains how people who roll their eyes at a middle-aged rapper still shouting “faggot” into the ether are trying to “exact dominance” over others, to make the freedom fighters on the right be “miserable, like them.” This has been a hallmark of the American right for decades: the people who complain about how sensitive and soft things have gotten are bowled over by the most benign pushback. Kamikaze in stores now.

This is, more or less, the political climate in which Eminem—and all of us—are stuck. Last fall, he made an earnest, and in some ways noble attempt to grapple with Trump, and with the not-insignificant portion of his fanbase that voted for Trump. The problem is that Revival wasn’t very good. Its centerpiece Trump song was all treacly platitudes and Alicia Keys, and it was surrounded by songs where he rapped about butts over the “I Love Rock N Roll” riff and/or rapped about ripping condoms in half in a shouted perversion of the Migos flow. The most memorable song from the album cycle wasn’t even a song from the album: it was his acapella performance from the BET Awards, which itself was a microcosm of Em’s creative and political states, impassioned and well-intentioned and completely robotic. Kamikaze presents itself as a corrective to Revival—not an apology for the last album, which Eminem argues here is underappreciated, but as a dressing down of those who dared criticize it. But it reveals an Eminem who’s been woefully slow to adapt to this era, on a number of levels.

First, there’s his fixation on rappers younger than him: at various points he mocks Lil Pump and attempts to parody the “Bad & Boujee” hook over a retread of the “Look Alive” beat. This makes him read old and cranky, like KOD via AARP. People have argued that the pop stars he skewered on his earlier albums were also soft targets, but Britney Spears and NSYNC were massive pop cultural totems at least on par with his level of fame, and at that point Em seemed to be in tune with the prevailing winds in American life. On Kamikaze, he’s reduced himself to a shuttered man shouting in isolation. Who, exactly, is “Not Alike”—the Tay Keith song—for? On that record, Em disses Machine Gun Kelly, which at least feels girded by personal animosity; the Migos pantomiming, by contrast, is downright embarrassing, as is boasting about inspiring Hopsin.

But there’s also Em’s seeming inability to read the way our politics and discourse have been morphed by the internet. The promise of digital life was that it would democratize information and creation—that we would all be better-informed and able to share our creative/academic/etc. works. Really, the internet has turned us all into pundits. Kamikaze opens with “The Ringer,” a lashing-out at those who panned Revival. There’s a rich tradition of rappers dressing down critics, but this is a world where Styxhexenhammer666 makes $50,184 a year before taxes. The social internet is too fragmented and slippery and filled with cryptic memespeak and bad-faith reappropriation for a stand against (e.g.) XXL to mean much. Some of the meaningful pushback, in fact, came from artists who worked on Kamikaze: immediately after the album’s release, Justin Vernon tweeted his displeasure about the song he contributed to, “Fall,” featured the slur in question. Vernon claims that he had requested the song be altered prior to its release, obviously to no avail. Today the video for “Fall” was released; it opens with an angry Em ditching his phone after getting a slew of push notifications about negative Revival reviews and ends with a foot crushing a physical copy of the album.

Where Em was tonally ill-equipped to take on Trump and his supporters last fall, on Kamikaze he seems to misunderstand the beast he’s up against if he wants to confront his detractors, and his complaints are made to seem shrill and self-pitying. There’s a skit—a callback to Em’s earlier work—where his manager, Paul Rosenberg, leaves a voicemail warning that an album responding to critics seems ill-conceived. It’s meant to serve the same purpose those old skits served: to paint Em as an uncontrollable rebel who can’t be tamed by lawyers or contracts or social norms. Here, though, it seems simply like good advice.

Like almost all of Eminem’s work this decade, Kamikaze wants to live and die on its craftsmanship: a monotonous barrage of verbal pyrotechnics. Remember when he was playful? There’s no more offbeat, muttered “I’m triple-platinum and tragedies happened in two states.” He’s turned loud and grating and stiff as rigor mortis, cramming syllables into rigid rhyme schemes that exist for their own sake. (In another skit, Em returns Paul’s call, in mock fury over a blog post that failed to understand the complexity in Em’s technical work on Revival.) Eminem is a supremely talented technician, but these songs only vaguely gesture at those gifts: on “Lucky You,” for instance, what seems to be a somber verse where Em begins to mull his place in rap devolves into run-of-the-mill double-time. There’s no verve or fun or freedom, just an agitated dump of vocals that might be, in the granular sense, technically precise, but are musically clumsy and blend together all too quickly.

Not all of the Kamikaze songs focus on critics and the Revival blowback. “Stepping Stone” is an unnervingly honest letter to his D-12 groupmates, about whom he feels a tremendous amount of guilt (and, apparently, more than a little contempt). Unfortunately, there are also the three relationship songs—“Nice Guy,” “Good Guy,” the odious “Normal,” at least two of which should have been stuffed deep in the vault: “Normal” is oafish and rote in its front end and then switches into a revenge fantasy that wouldn’t rank among Em’s top 20, and on “Nice Guy” he’s fuming indistinctly about a woman leaving his house in tight jeans.

None of this is to say Kamikaze isn’t relatable. Who, in 2018, doesn’t feel obsessed with yet totally crushed by our channels of communication? The overarching problems with the album are the ways it attempts to process criticism, which haven’t been updated since early W. Bush, and its technical rigidity. And yet any cursory look online will reveal impassioned defenses—against largely-imagined charges that Eminem is too politically incorrect to survive in this era. But the reality is that critiques of the album have little to do with this imposed PC narrative from Eminem fans. Instead, there’s nothing shocking about Kamikaze, nothing that doesn’t come off like a too-late retread of what seemed volatile at the end of the 90s. The cover is an homage to Licensed To Ill, the Beastie Boys’ debut album, which is several orders of magnitude looser and more fun than Kamikaze, and which the group planned to call Don’t Be a Faggot before thinking better of it. That was 1986.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.