Like so many figures in contemporary rap music, Eminem—the man born as Marshall Mathers—is full of contradictions.
In 2000, on his ubiquitous single “The Real Slim Shady,” Mathers rapped, “You think I give a damn about a Grammmy? Half of you critics can’t even stomach me—let alone stand me.” 18 years later, we now know that yes, Mathers, in fact, does give a damn about a Grammy—and that he is specifically holding on to resentment stemming from the fact that he did not win Album of The Year in 2001 for The Marshall Mathers LP.
He confesses to this on “Fall”—“And then tell the Grammys to go fuck themselves. They suck the blood from all the biggest artists like some leeches; so nominate ‘em, get ‘em there, get a name to MC the show—every parasite needs a host—then give Album of The Year to somebody that no one’s ever heard of.”1
On his auspicious and proper introduction to the world, 1999’s The Slim Shady LP (technically his sophomore album if we’re counting his independently released Infinite as his first) Mathers, right out of the gate, advertised how he didn’t give a fuck. He gave so few fucks that he wrote not one, BUT TWO, entire songs about this aspect of his personality—aptly naming them “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Still Don’t Give A Fuck.”
However, despite this gruff façade, Eminem does, in fact, give a fuck—now, more than ever, and this, give or take, is the crux of his latest full-length effort.
Arriving around eight months after his last disaster album, the universally maligned Revival, Mathers has returned with Kamikaze, a ‘surprise’ release, digitally unleashed unnecessarily on an unsuspecting public at the end of August, with physically copies being made available the following week.
Across the album’s 11 songs (a mercifully slender 13 tracks total, two of which are skits, because that is still a thing in 2018, I guess) Kamikaze finds Mathers boiling over with vitriol for, oh, I don’t know, pretty much anybody who has ever said anything remotely negative about him.
Once you realize the overall conceit of Kamikaze, it’s difficult not to see it as a petty and self-aware stunt (see the aforementioned skits) pulled by an artist who, as I pointed out in the conclusion of my write up of Revival for this very website, could have bowed out gracefully, at the top of his game, many, many years ago—but instead, continues to be the very definition of ‘diminishing returns’ by toiling away, going harder than he has to, and feeling that still he has something, after nearly 20 years of mainstream popularity, to prove.
The album opens with the sound of a crash—that, as well as the album’s cover art (borrowing is a polite way to describe what it owes to the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill2) are kind of all you need to know about Kamikaze. It is, by all accounts, train wreck (or plane crash, if you prefer) levels of horrible.
And I do hope saying this doesn’t cause Mathers to angrily drive to my house and threaten me.
Before I go any further into this review—you know, like, actually getting into why Kamikaze is another problematic entry in a canon filled with problematic entries, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that many years ago Mathers claimed to not give a fuck; but now, at age 45, he does. He wants needs to be loved by everyone—both listeners and critics alike. He wants his records to be lauded, and he wants people to trip over themselves in an effort to see who can commend him first for how technically gifted of a performer he is.
And if you don’t comply—you are a target.
Mathers takes aim at countless targets on Kamikaze—both other rappers, as well as music news outlets that were critical of his last album—or his latter day career in general. He specifically names Pitchfork on “Fall,” a song that will go on to become the most notorious track on this record (not for good reasons); and on one of the two skits, Mathers calls out YouTube music critic3 Shawn Cee (who Mathers mistakenly refers to as ‘This Yahoo motherfucker’) by pretending (hopefully it’s just pretend) that he’s on his way to Cee’s house—he, like Mathers, is also from Michigan.
Am I a little disappointed that Mathers didn’t mention my review of Revival? I am, actually.
But am I also relieved that he didn’t mention it? Yes, absolutely.
So why is Kamikaze so problematic?
Gosh—where do you begin?
As we all know—he’ll never let us forget it—Mathers is a technically gifted performer. Now, more than ever before, he seems to overemphasize the speed with which he can articulate his words, the cadence and rhythm with which they fall, and the anger with which they are punctuated.
There are times that he is rapping so frenetically on Kamikaze that I can’t even understand a word he is saying, or fathom what kind of vocal warm ups and face muscle exercises he has to do before stepping into a recording studio. Why do these words need to escape from his mouth that quickly? They don’t. There is simply no good reason as to why, but in insisting on doing this, Mathers winds up spending a bulk of this album in a pissing contest over who can rap the fastest and loudest—except, he’s the only one pissing.
His delivery is impressive and dizzying—yes, but when the words have little to no meaning, or heart, to them—why bother?
Musically, over the course of his career thus far, Mathers has opted to favor bombastic, cartoony, and Technicolor beats as opposed to anything gritty or raw4 sounding. This doesn’t really change on Kamikaze—though, thankfully, he refrains from any lazy sampling and interpolation5 on this outing. Here, on, “Greatest,” he’s backed by a stuttering, quick tempo beat with off-kilter synthesizers, and on the titular track, which happens to be the most obnoxious offender of the bunch, he spits malevolently, keeping up with a spastic beat punctuated by low squawks that sound like someone is (and they may very well have been) farting onto the keyboard.
Lyrically, I hesitate to say that Mathers’ rhymes are no worse here than they were on Revival, but maybe that’s being too generous. While the former saw him mildly (and awkwardly) embracing some kind of newfound ‘wokeness’ when it came to timely subjects like gay rights and a stance on the day’s political climate, Kamikaze finds him back peddling ever so slightly—replacing those sudden forward thinking ideas with the juvenile hate speech his earlier work was synonymous with, and re-thinking his politically motivated material simply because it impacted his bottom line.
Mathers’ liberal usage of the ‘f’ word (fag) early in his career was, as expected, problematic—“Hate fags? The answer’s yes,” he famously declared on “Criminal,” from The Marshall Mathers LP. In interviews during this time, he defended his choice of that word, saying that he didn’t mean it as an anti-gay slur, but as a word to ‘take away the manhood’ of somebody else.
Certainly he didn’t mean any real harm by it. I mean, the guy did pretty much eradicate homophobia completely when he performed “Stan” with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards.
In these tempestuous times of heightened sensitivity, I think we can all agree that, unless you are an absolute garbage person, ‘fag’ is a word you don’t say. But Mathers, ever the provocateur, opts to go for it—albeit self-censored on the album.6
Again, on “Fall,” Mathers doesn’t so much take aim at other rappers—he blindly sprays an automatic weapon until the magazine is completely empty. “Tyler create nothin,’ no wonder you call yourself a faggot, bitch,” Mathers spits vehemently, in an attack on Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator. Mathers also attempts a jab at Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt too—calling him ‘Earl The Hooded Sweatshirt,’ which is more of a head scratcher than anything else.
While Mathers’ use of a homophobic slur is both unexpected and unacceptable7, a majority of people suddenly seem to have forgotten that Tyler, The Creator’s earliest work involved saying things much, much worse—but apparently all is forgiven (?) on his behalf after releasing an album full of allusions to his own sexual orientation.
It also seems worth noting that Mathers, while attacking two members of the now-defunct Odd Future collective, he does seem to also want to take credit for the group—“It’s because you worship D12,” he later says—implying that Mathers’ own also now defunct rap group inspired Odd Future.
Funny—any time I heard about Odd Future during their early days, I presumed they were working toward something similar to the Wu-Tang Clan. The name ‘D12’ didn’t even cross my mind.
In fact—I forgot, until listening to this album, that D12 was even a thing.
D12 was a thing, wasn’t it? Halcyon days, really, when Eminem tried to make five of his friends famous, and a heavily edited and altered version of “Purple Pills” was in rotation on MTV.
However, nobody else in the group was really able to make it as a solo artist, and Mathers, as he alludes to on “Stepping Stone,” a eulogy of sorts for the group, felt like it was his burden to carry them all.
Due to the nature of “Stepping Stone”—Mathers shows the most genuine emotion here, especially when he discusses the death of D12 member Proof—it’s the most palatable (I stop short of saying listenable) inclusion on Kamikaze. The rest of his album is, as you should have been able to figure out by now, unforgivably bad.
Outside of using homophobic slurs, Mathers resorts the ‘r’ word—saying that listeners who didn’t ‘get’ Revival are ‘mentally retarded.’ He also uses another ‘r’ word in that same song—maybe, out of all the questionable content found on this album, this one gave me the most reason for pause. Early on in the song, he claims he is going to ‘rape the alphabet.’
On not one, but TWO tracks, he makes light of domestic violence (“Normal” and “Good Guy”); he claims to hate the ‘triplet’ stuttering flow, made popular in recent years by acts like Migos—though he continues to write lyrics for beats that find him indulging in it; he gets overshadowed by featured artists—Joyner Lucas, who takes the first verse on “Lucky You,” raps like his life depends on it, and later, on “Not Alike,” regular collaborator Royce da 5’9” steals the show by simply not trying as hard as Mathers.
There are also countless other offensive asides and punchlines—but truthfully, they become too numerous to name.
If all that weren’t enough, Kamikaze unceremoniously ends with a small bit of product placement—the final track on the album is also apparently the titular track from the forthcoming Venom movie8, starring Tom Hardy.
Throughout the entirety of this album, Mathers continues to name drop contemporary artists—he rattles off the names of Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, and J. Cole9 (always grouped together like that) more than once—these are among the select few who are actually praised and not on the receiving end of some kind of insult. Soundcloud rappers, or ‘mumble rappers’ are the ones who get it the worst.
On “Lucky You,” Mathers pontificates: “They’re askin’ me, ‘What the fuck happened to hip hop?’ I said, ‘I don’t have any answers.” Between that, and the handful of shoehorned in, kind of modern but mostly outdated references (e.g. the Jay-Z/Mocking Jay/Hunger Games is possibly the worst of them) Mathers comes off not so much as an elder statesman of the genre (as he could, if he wanted) but more like Steve Buscemi’s private detective character from “30 Rock.”
In the wake of Kamikaze’s release, I read somewhere online that it was the album that fans deserved eight months ago.
I don’t even know if I would be that kind—nobody deserves this. There is no doubt that Marshall Mathers changed the landscape of hip-hop, and contemporary popular music, with his arrival in 1999. Despite how poorly they’ve aged, and how cringeworthy the content is, both The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, are culturally important.
But in the nearly two decades that have passed—things have changed. People—audiences, listeners—have changed. People mature. Rap music and hip-hop as genres have changed. However, in that time, Mathers, as a persona or caricature, has not changed, and in that stunted development, it has become harder and harder to be some kind of Eminem apologist and find anything remotely redeeming about an album like Kamikaze.
On the evening of its surprise release, Mathers sent out a tweet that read: “I tried not 2 overthink this 1.” Overthink, underthink—after listening to Kamikaze, I’m left wondering if he should have even thought at all.
1- I just wanted to mention quickly that, I, too, am harboring about 18 years worth of resentment toward the Grammy Awards, but not because Eminem lost to Steely Dan for Album of The Year—because Radiohead lost to Steely Dan for Album of The Year. “Steely Fucking Dan?” I yelled at my television before turning it off. I was 17 years old at the time.
2- While the Beastie Boys paved the way for white rappers, or at least made the concept a possibility; a fun bit of trivia about License to Ill is that the working title for the record was Don’t Be A Faggot.
3- I know that YouTube reviews are a thing now, or whatever, but I seriously can’t image anyone wanting to sit and watch a video of my dumb face reviewing an album. I still have a hard time believing people read the trash content I put out onto the internet.
4- While difficult to track down, Eminem’s debut, Infinite, is a pure product of its time (1996) and the beats found within are simply astounding in the atmosphere they create. Mathers, also, sounds like a child.
5- There was that song on Revival that didn’t so much sample “Zombie” by The Cranberries—it was basically Mathers rapping over the top of it.
6- Mathers has a long history of self-censoring—(e.g. all of the Columbine references he makes on The Marshall Mathers LP.)
7- I couldn’t find a way to fit this into the review proper, but “Fall” features guest vocals from Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon, who apparently did not know how his vocal tracks were going to be used and, later, once he found out, asked Eminem to change the track; Eminem’s camp refused.
8- I am not really a fan of comic book movies but I think the idea for the Venom movie is outstanding, simply because it’s a property retained by one studio (Sony) who lost the rights to another related property (Spider Man.) So, in effect, Sony Pictures is making a movie about a character from the Spider Man comic books, but without Spider Man—who plays a pretty big role in the origin story of Venom. There is no way that this will go poorly, especially with a song by Eminem featured in it.
9- One of these names is not like the others.
If you like having someone violently spray diarrhea in your ears, Kamikaze is out now via Shady/Aftermath/Interscope.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.