Eminem needs very little introduction to most, and he’s considered by many rap fans to be the greatest of all time, but if you’ve lived under a rock for twenty years or you’re under the age of 16, allow me to catch you up. Marshal Mathers burst on to the hip-hop scene in 1999 under the moniker of Eminem with his debut LP, The Slim Shady LP, and followed a year later with The Marshal Mathers LP. The former went quadruple platinum and the latter is one of the few records in rap history to go diamond, or 10x platinum. This was a certification he achieved again in 2002 with The Eminem Show. Over the next 15 years, he dropped five more projects to diminishing critical acclaim, but never failing to reach platinum sales.
Eminem has been, historically, one of the most infamous and controversial artists in music history. Where hip-hop before him had been criticized for glorifying violence and misogyny, Mathers’ work, particularly his first two records, were jarringly brutal. Gleefully telling stories of domestic abuse, drug use, and even killing his wife in a track on each album, Eminem and his Slim Shady character blurred the lines between satire and genuine art and fearlessly tested listeners on the proposition that freedom of speech was of paramount importance. All the while, his rhyme schemes where impenetrably dense, his narrative abilities were like nothing the genre had ever heard, and his disses had the ability to stop blossoming careers in their tracks. His later work was far less impressive, and 2017’s Revival represented a low point in his legendary career, even commercially. But with the surprise release of Kamikaze, he seems to be back on track thanks to an almost unhealthy amount of bitterness and anger.
There is a lot to unpack on this project, and the bulk of it is positive, so lets break with form and discuss the weaknesses first. Firstly, the closer, “Venom,” doesn’t fit in this track list at all, and should’ve been released as a separate single. The beats on this album range from easily ignored to atrocious and there isn’t a single piece of impressive production across the track list. The hooks and choruses are generally boring, though several of the tracks don’t even have these. These issues collide on “Good Guy,” which is easily the weakest song on the album.
On the contrary, Em is in prime form on Kamikaze. Flow wise, he puts on a master class. Not only does he change schemes and rhythms constantly, but he’s able to bite flows from a number of popular modern artists and use their own flows to mock them. He does this a lot on the opener and best track, “The Ringer,” and on “Lucky You,” he follows Joyner Lucas’ feature and matches his flow almost identical with his own lyrics. This ability to write not only in his own voice but effectively in the voice of a plethora of other artists is rare and remarkable.
Lyrically, this is one of Mathers’ best projects in the last decade. His storytelling is excellent on “Normal,” he’s characteristically clever on the title track, and he bears his heart effectively on “Stepping Stones.” There aren’t exactly any lyrical masterpieces here, but his writing is of a much higher level than the bulk of his more recent work.
The features are quite impressive as well. Joyner Lucas gives a killer performance on “Lucky You,” and Royce Da 5’9” is, of course, fantastic on “Not Alike.” Justin Vernon’s vocals lay an interesting chorus on “Fall,” and Jessie Reyez is the highlight of the unique “Nice Guy,” and the only bright spot on “Good Guy.” Em treats these features maturely, giving each artist a chance to shine instead of using them for name recognition as he’s been known to do.
Now we need to speak on the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to Kamikaze: this album is absolutely stacked with disses against a veritable who’s who of the modern rap game. “The Ringer,” opens the album taking shots at Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, Joe Budden, Charlemagne Tha God, Donald Trump, Vince Staples, and a few more if you can believe it. He attacks Drake on “Lucky You,” and comes after Migos and the greater group of trap artists on “Greater.” This is, of course, the first three tracks of the album, but he doesn’t seem to ever get this out of his system. “Not Alike,” features a few brutal lines aimed at Machine Gun Kelly, who responded yesterday with a diss track of his own, and “Fall,” drops several extremely controversial bars against Tyler the Creator mocking, among other things, his sexual orientation. Beyond this, Em devotes quite a bit of time to responding to critics and reaction channels who responded negatively to last year’s release. This group, to some extent, actually included Brendon’s Beats!
He seems aware of the overwhelming amount of attacks on this album as the two skits feature Marshal arguing with his producer as to whether he should take the time to respond to everyone who disliked his last release.
This album, in the few days since its release, has been somewhat polarizing, but I tend to fall on a favorable reaction. Nearing 50 years old and decorated with every accolade a hip-hop artist could possibly be given, many assumed that we’d never hear the old Eminem again. The dirt poor kid from Detroit who rapped like an angry dog trapped in a corner, a skill he picked up from years spent as the only white kid in the battle rap scene, but Kamikaze may be the closest we could hope to come. What it lacks in radio hits it returns in spades with fire and passion.
Marshal Mathers is writing recklessly once again, picking fights with anyone in sight, and that’s why Kamikaze is Eminem’s best album in over a decade.