Thursday, September 6, 2018

album review: 'kamikaze' by eminem

I was afraid of this happening. I honestly didn't expect it to happen - while there has always been blunt self-aware commentary in Eminem's work even with regards to his previous records, the fallout coming from Revival was particularly concerning, and I honestly just hoped that Em would leave it at the remix of 'Chloroseptic' and just move on, or maybe hunker down in the studio to cut together a sharper project, or heaven forbid get out of Detroit for a bit so he could take in the cutting edge of modern hip-hop and start really pushing the gauntlet again. About the last thing I would have wanted him to do was build an entire project as a response, because it's not the first time he's done this. I've always read Encore as a layered artistic immolation, intentional self-sabotage of his curdled legacy, and Recovery was explicitly framed as a response to the underappreciated Relapse, and somehow wound up even worse, to say nothing of sounding dated as all hell.

But Kamikaze looked to be simultaneously something different but familiar: a surprise album framed as a response and return to form, burning down everything in his path in acrid contempt for a mainstream hip-hop sound that threw him and Revival aside, with features from Joyner Lucas and Royce but also hooks from Jessie Reyez, about the last person I cared to see hop on a hook for anyone given her barely adequate and depressingly conventional pop vocal timbre. It was an album designed to court controversy with an impressive number of names getting dropped and insults getting thrown that all had the feeling of Eminem taking the critical rejection of Revival way too seriously and worse still not learning the lessons of why that record didn't work... but again, I'm an Eminem fan and defender and I have been for years, so I wanted to give this project its due time to sink in, to see if it could rise above its questionable origins... so how is it?

Well folks, I'll say this: if Revival was the record that disappointed me, Kamikaze was the Eminem record that made angry. This is going to be a bit of a different review here, because of course I can say that it's better. The production is better, the flows are better, most of the guest stars are welcome, and it reminds me of Eminem in mixtape mold, hungry and with something to prove. And then I took a step back and realized that what Eminem is trying to prove on Kamikaze is not only something that shouldn't need proving, but also reeks of a desperation that was a bad look on Nicki Minaj's last project and is a worse look here. And while I will get into this more, this is the sort of project that while there is an increase in technical quality, what's actually being delivered with that quality has somehow less replay value and confirms things about Eminem that as a fan pisses me off a lot more... yeah, it might turn out to be one of those reviews.

Because again, I've been an Eminem defender - like so many other teenage white boys in the 2000s, he was formative to my embrace of hip-hop as an art form, and as such I found every justification for the shock rap tactics and bad ideas... and to be fair to myself, I stand by a lot of those justifications in terms of theme if not technical ability. And there is no denying that as an MC with real charisma and a magnetic intensity, Eminem is a powerful presence behind the mic, and it's hard for me not to get a thrill racing down my spine at his delivery, with manic wordplay and an ability to construct bars and ridiculously fast flows that cannot be denied. But I've said for years that sheer technical ability is often not enough if you want to construct good songs or albums, and more than anything Kamikaze put that assertion to the test - Encore was intentional artistic suicide and had thematic justifications, and Revival showed the real possibility that Em was slipping that the excuse didn't enter the conversation, but for Kamikaze he's rapping as strongly as ever... and yet the songs feel increasingly hollow and airless, mostly because they nearly all center around the orbit of Eminem and his place in hip-hop. And yes, that's always been true about any Eminem record, and that self-awareness has led to stark observations about white American culture and hip-hop as a whole and the lingering scars of fame, but the self-awareness seems blinkered here, as if nobody was allowed to point out problems or contradictions in Eminem's logic - the abrupt rollout may have implied he wasn't overthinking this project, but maybe a sober second or third draft could have shown some better results!

And what's infuriating is that it's juxtaposed against points Eminem makes that I genuinely agree with - if you've been watching me at all you know my general disinterest in by-the-numbers trap and mumble rap, soaked in lean and drug addiction and stealing your girl with no coherent or consistent subject matter... but is Em going to act like incoherent songs weren't an issue for him on either SHADYXV or Revival, which didn't have the excuses of murderous irrationality or humour, or that his early work wasn't swimming in drug abuse? And of course nobody is denying that Eminem didn't inspire lyrical greats working today - although how on earth he puts Big Sean in the same category beyond Detroit affiliation is beyond me - and I do think that's a net positive for hip-hop as a whole... but it's very telling that one of those he references is Logic, who in recent years is garnering the exact same reputation of overwritten bars and underthought content, especially on his mixtapes. And while I don't mind Eminem having a go at Drake for ghostwriting allegations in hip-hop - hell, I've been doing that for years now, even moreso in 2018 - you could very easily say that Eminem's brand of collaboration with folks around Shady shares similar roots in artistic crossbreeding, or at the very least reflects a one-sided relationship with anyone he signs. 'Stepping Stones' was arguably the biggest example of this, where Eminem tries to lay concerns to rest surrounding D12's failure to really explode in the early-to-mid-2000s and then absolve himself of responsibility... and while the situation was probably too fraught with complications especially in the aftermath of Proof's death and Em's own drug problems, even with the acknowledgement that D12 wasn't on Em's level, the fact he wasn't able to effectively elevate them in the mid-2000s is a blemish on his record which even he acknowledges - although it's very easy for you to call it 'water under the bridge' with the massive string of success, Em. And it's the same deal with Royce, same with Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf and other current signees to Shady... hell, it even casts the scathing criticisms from Eminem's peers in the late 90s and early 2000s from acts like Cannibus, Everlast and Cage in a different light, with Eminem as an artist swallowed up by the machine of superstardom where other acts were fed into the maw to keep it running instead of the artist creating quality from his own space. Or to put it another way, it's very telling how he'll drop the names of his adversaries far more than he will his own labelmates... or even some of his own friends.

But you can't tell Eminem that - his machine won't allow him to hear it. You can't remind him how if he's going to accuse Joe Budden of domestic abuse on 'Fall' that songs like 'Kim' exist and allegations have lingered around Em for years. You can't tell him that Tyler The Creator's personal hero is more Pharrell that D12 and that the cheap homophobic insults show a MC defaulting to slurs that are beneath him at his age. You can't tell him that going at Machine Gun Kelly on 'Not Alike' for creepy comments made about Hailie don't excuse the literal dozens of creepy references Eminem has made to women, both in and out of hip-hop. You can't tell him that despite on the very first song 'The Ringer' his correct assertion that mentioning names will give them clout and diminish him, he spends the rest of the damn album dropping names. You can't tell him that even as he acknowledges the last record didn't quite get to the deeper points he wanted to make about politics, that the wordplay didn't go over the heads of critics and the media, or that despite his venom directed at the current president, he's just a step away from calling out 'fake news!' to dismiss it. And yet again, there's a part of me that absolutely gets it, because just like Nicki Minaj Eminem is clearly enraged his technical skill is not leading to the popular and critical accolades he's been told by his machine that he deserves and you can watch him struggling to figure out why that is... but on some level, even as a fan I'm done giving him a pass. An artist like him with unquestioned skill, multiple classic albums and an established legacy under his belt should not sound this insecure and flailing, and whatever industry cretins whose been sealing Eminem away from collaborators who could challenge him in content or production, or not helping him elevate his crew instead of just focusing on his star, or preventing him from just living to refresh his experiences and network... those enablers need to be set on fire - repeatedly.

But on some level this all does circle back to Eminem, because a true hip-hop superstar knows how to move and last in this industry, and him trying to blow apart everything and everyone in a mad suicidal rush - even if it is self-aware - raises ugly questions about his judgement, especially when we get into the other artistic choices on this record, most of which show a gross amount of recycling which was one of the fundamental issues with Revival! Yes, I'm happy Royce and Joyner Lucas were here and both of their contributions were solid, unquestionably the best songs on the album, but they have little chemistry with Eminem, and if he wants to get away from a past that didn't work, maybe a good step would be ditching the confused, jealous, and increasingly unjustifiable relationship songs, especially if the only singer you can dredge up is Jessie Reyez! Then we have the production and uncredited hooks, where Justin Vernon has already protested about his hook added to 'Fall', but what blows my mind is that this implies Eminem has heard Bon Iver records and has somehow retained no inspiration from them. But what I find genuinely enraging is how there are problems carried over from Revival that were not fixed here, especially in the production! There is no fucking excuse for a rapper who claims to be the greatest in the world to have such sloppily mixed and mastered beats - the clumsy lo-fi hook on 'Greatest', the grainy and tinny synths behind 'Normal', the horribly mixed female vocals on 'Stepping Stones', the demented squonking but oddly thin backing track behind the title track that's interpolating 'Fack', a song that many rightly consider Eminem's worst ever song, and that's before we get the track sequencing which it is just sloppy, no way around it. Why in the Nine Hells do you place your 'Paul' skit with only one song between you calling back, and that song has nothing to do with the narrative arc of your record - hell, why are any of the relationship songs on this project, they don't fit! Hell, I'd cut off the last three songs on the record, half because I can't stand Jessie Reyez and Eminem has retread this material dozens of times so many times, half because the song for Venom feels like glorified soundtrack filler with too much stuttering, and it leaves any points you're trying to make feel unfinished and distinctly unsatisfying. And it's so obvious they're label concessions and compromises, that some analyst didn't want this to be all dissatisfied and desperate rage - fuck that, the greatest rapper in the world should have the ability to overrule his handlers and deliver all fire, so cut the last three songs, 'Normal', and the petulant skits and while I wouldn't call this good I'd call it cohesive.

But at the end of the day, I could copypaste my concluding statements from my review of Revival and it'd feel just appropriate, because so little has changed: a faded titan entrenched in a hall of mirrors, only this time the mirrors are cracking and he can see enough outside to piss him off but not enough to break free. And I'd love to step up here and say this record is a suicidal commentary on artistic hypocrisy, with Eminem intentionally destroying his relationships and career in the same way Encore was, but at least that record had reflective moments in between its trolling - with Kamikaze, the insight is half-formed, the humour is gone, and Eminem's artistry has turned into an ouroboros that might make for a quick shot of adrenaline but has shockingly little staying power. And I'm not Joe Budden to say that Eminem has not made records of substance in this decade - I still hold up The Marshall Mathers LP 2 as one of the best albums of 2013 to this day, and he's had scattered moments of brilliance in the 2010s - but if there's an artist who needs to get the hell out of his bubble and ignore those have artistically stifled him for the sake of feeding his machine, it's Marshall Mathers. So yeah, 4/10, no recommendation, and Em... critical backlash should not be your muse anymore. It's tired, it's stale, and I want to believe you're a better artist than this. There'll be some who'll never come back, that you've burned one too many bridges, and for me... well, we'll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment