Sometimes you sense that change is coming, and can only hope it’s for the best. Two recent incidents in the creative life of Eminem signaled that the usually crabby, occasionally comedic, and always confrontational Caucasian rapper might be moving beyond the dull, drama-less rut that was 2017’s “Revival,” and into the fresher, freakier waters of ‘Kamikaze,” his surprise album drop at August’s end.
The first came with his hard-edged, freestyle cypher at the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards. Em had ripped into President Donald Trump before — repeatedly on “Revival” — and the rapper may have looked, uh, shadier than usual, hooded and barking in an underground parking lot (to which Stephen Colbert made the best jokes, here). Yet, that caustic, rapid-fire charge was more alive, lyrically and verbally, than Marshall Mathers has been since the start of the 21st Century.
Another example of his speedy, gutsy, accusatory and/or salacious rhymes came through his featured guest verses on “Majesty,” from Nicki Minaj’s “Queen” album. Here, in a heated, sing-song-y tone faster than the syllables-per-second of his famed “Rap God,” Eminem cut down the lameness of new-fangled hip-hop and the young MCs who dared to follow in his footsteps. “Don’t tell me about the culture,” he spits on “Fall,” from “Kamikaze.” “I inspired the Hopsins, the Logics, the Coles, the Seans, the K-Dots, the 5’9s, and, oh, brought the world 50 Cent.”
Boastful, yes. But Eminem sounds like he’s prepared to prove why he is his own GOAT.
With the whole of “Kamikaze,” Eminem is wagering that he can’t be beat. So he sharpens his knives, refuses to “overthink this one” (so says his Tweet announcing the surprise drop) and wears his most prominent influences, old and new, on his sleeve. He throws shade and hedges his bets. At the very least, he’s putting the sense of inspiration and wonder to good use on the cover of his 10th album, which borrows liberally from the sleeve of Beastie Boys’ 1986 LP, “Licensed to Ill.” With the fighter plane’s burning nose and its tail initialed “FU-2,” it’s fun seeing Eminem pay tribute to the goofy poetry and the off-putting misogyny of the other white meat.
Along with that nod to old school hip-hop, and another by way of the aged Def Jam snag from LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad,” Em and his executive co-producer Dr. Dre also pull from more contemporary fare, Playboi Carti’s “Woke Up Like This,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” the latter of which anchors the pulpy “Kamikaze” cut, “Greatest.” Like the trap beats-filled “Not Alike,” the dense sonics of these two tracks feel modernist, cold, and overly reliant on newly familiar tropes. Eminem even goes as far as to shout “Tay Keith,” on the chilly theatrical “Not Alike,” in a sound-a-like Drake/”Scorpion” moment (listen to Drizzy’s recent “Nonstop” for that reference).
Like Muhammad Ali throwing a rope-a-dope, Eminem is drawing you in with weirdly dippy mimicry so as to slap lazy listeners out of their doldrums (much as he needed to do to his own turgid music post-“Revival”), in hopes that we’ll realize that hip-hop is getting stale in its production and lyrical tropes. This is where the album gets good and catty. To be sure, Eminem’s voice hasn’t sounded quite so cranky, silly, impassioned or enraged since his early days.
Bypassing most of his famed loathing of Trump (on “The Ringer,” Em even sounds regretful that his BET cypher was bitchy to The Donald’s constituency, rapping, “If I could go back, I’d at least reword it / And say I empathize with the people this evil serpent sold the dream to that he’s deserted”), “Kamikaze” focuses most of Eminem’s racing caustic disgust with his own trade. Starting with “The Ringer,” he takes no prisoners when it comes to the Lil likes of Lil Xan and Lil Pump. He imitates Lil Wayne and rips “Gucci Gang” for having subpar bars. Em also unleashes savage vitriol on Lil Yachty by shrieking, “Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow everyone copies?”
So who does Eminem save deep and abiding respect for? Women. Trump-dissing comedian Kathy Griffin gets a shout-out on the title track with “Kathy Griffin, stackin’ ammunition / Slap the clip and cock it back on competition.” Soulful flavor-of-the-moment (deserved) Canadian Jessie Reyez gets a back-to-back crack at Skylar Grey glory on two tracks themed around toxic masculinity, “Nice Guy,” then “Good Guy.”
Em then goes in for the meta self-commentary of “Normal.” As he has been insistently accused of deeply vicious misogyny in his lyrics, the jaw-dropping mea culpa of “I slipped up and busted her jaw with a Louisville Slugger,” and its squirrelly rationalization (“it really does make our love for each other grow stronger”) may not allow you to see him as any less vile. Yet, when coupled with the aforementioned “Guy” tracks, you sense that Eminem has grown into an ominously social-satirical critic (or critique) of the misogyny for which he’s been deservedly accused. He’s not exactly woke, but Eminem is waking up.
“What I’ll never be is flawless… all I’ll ever be is honest,” Eminem rap-sings in his usual flinty cackle, heading into the sunset of self-deprecation and generational disgust. “Kamikaze” may not be flawless, but it comes closer than he has in years.