Eminem rebounds from his shaky ‘Revival’ with a leaner, stronger tenth studio album, ‘Kamikaze.’
By the end of last year, Eminem seemed to be all but finished. He’d just reached 45, his last album was possibly his most underwhelming to date, and he’d insisted that he was “fed up with” his music career and “hanging it up.” Granted, every LP he’s put out since 2004 has featured some sort of declaration of this nature, but this time around, a retirement announcement seemed less threatening than ever before.
Emphases that he doesn’t care what people may think or have to say about him run rampant across the Marshall Mathers catalogue. Yet Eminem seems to have taken some of the common criticisms against Revival into account — by his own admission, in a clever Kendrick Lamar nod, “Re-vi-val didn’t go vi-ral!”
Kamikaze, a surprise LP which made its promotion-free way to streaming services on August 31, has learned many lessons from its unsuccessful predecessor.
To begin with, it’s substantially shorter at only 45 minutes — Revival’s 77 minutes could become grueling at times. The list of featured artists makes a lot more sense and is considerably more effective than the desperately-commercial choosings of his most recent album. The production also fits Eminem’s style much better; those raw samples of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and “Zombie” went over far less than smoothly the last time around.
Fresh new subject matter, which he confessed four years ago on “Guts Over Fear” he was struggling to find, remains an unfortunate deficiency. Kamikaze doesn’t do much to break the negative trend that has endured since his last fully satisfying album, 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2: It seems like Eminem, once the game’s finest storyteller, may have spun out his yarn after 20-some years in the rap game.
The album’s most narrative-driven moment, “Stepping Stone,” is also one of its brightest highlights. No coincidence there: Eminem has achieved some of his most engrossing tracks when he steps back to consider some of the defining features of his life which may not have turned out the way he wanted — be it fame on “Beautiful,” fatherhood on “Mockingbird,” or his relationship with his mother on “Headlights.”
On “Stepping Stone,” Eminem speaks to his bandmates in D12, who used to be “globally huge, watchin’ sales go through the roof,” but now haven’t released a new album together in 14 years and have never recovered from the 2006 loss of key member Proof. Hearing Eminem speculate as to what may have gone wrong and yearning to “make amends to all the friends I may have hurt” represents the candor, introspection, and even vulnerability that have so often constituted some of the great MC’s best songs.
Kamikaze would have been stronger had it boasted more tracks of this nature — the self-aggrandizement and jabs at other rappers (“I’m a Kamikaze smashing into everything,” he explains) can get repetitive. But that point is a flaw, not a fatality. Eminem’s speed raps and verbal acrobatics continue to impress, even when their thematic content may not be the richest. Songs like “Lucky You” and “Greatest” hold their ground against “Rap God” in terms of breathless emceeing, all while echoing the “no matter how many fish in the sea, it would feel so empty without me” message from the peak of Shady-mania, circa 2002.
One final note of praise goes to the featured artists on this record. It’s no surprise that Royce da 5’9 brings out the best of his lifelong collaborator with their fiery duet, “Not Alike.” But it’s astonishing, and certainly gratifying, to see newcomer Joyner Lucas achieve this feat every bit as well on his first appearance alongside Eminem on the great “Lucky You.” Although Justin Vernon has since disavowed his uncredited appearance on “Fall,” the Bon Iver singer still unintentionally contributes to one of the album’s most tender moments.
In the end, despite its imperfections, Kamikaze marks a successful experiment as Eminem’s first surprise release, as well as considerable maturation for the veteran rapper. This is a man who once told his detractors to “put my tape back on the rack, go run and tell your friends my shit is back, I just don’t give a fuck!” Nineteen years later, his attitude in response to Revival’s negative reception is quite the opposite, as can be seen by the many improvements he’s made from one record to the next.
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