A Reflection on Eminem's “Kamikaze”: A Slippery Slope Indeed
Content Warning: Mention of homophobic language
“Yo, I'm just gonna write down my first thoughts, see where this takes me, ’cause I feel like I wanna punch the world in the fuckin' face right now, yeah!”
Unfortunately, this is the first line of the first track on Eminem’s polarizing new album Kamikaze. To its credit, it does seem to be an honest description of the creative process that had to have been responsible for this relentlessly aggressive, ill-conceived barrage of songs. Eminem spends the majority of Kamikaze responding to the critics who disliked his last project, Revival, which was, by nearly all accounts, atrocious, especially when compared to his previous work. The corny, laughable lyrics and outdated pop samples made it clear that he had lost touch. But rather than taking this criticism to heart and trying to improve or grow as an artist, he instead chose to lash out in typical Eminem fashion: throwing out vile and at times highly problematic insults at everyone who slighted him.
His disses generally boil down to these sentiments: “You didn’t like it because you’re not smart enough to understand it,” “You’re not as good as I am, so you can’t criticize me,” and, “I’m so much better than mainstream hip-hop artists!” The first two sentiments come up repeatedly, which is truly regrettable because the segments during which Eminem expresses these feelings are by far the worst, most grating parts of the album. Though his intention was probably to assert and reaffirm his dominance as a giant of the industry, he comes off more as an immature narcissist whose fragile ego is clouding his judgment of what makes a critique valid. The last sentiment comes up less frequently, but is no less annoying. Eminem merely echoes the tired criticisms that have been directed at mumble rappers and trap artists for years, providing no original, meaningful insight into the state of rap. It seems like he’s just complaining to hear himself complain rather than move the conversation forward, further cementing the perception that he has become an out-of-touch oldhead.
The project was clearly the product of an aging, increasingly insecure rapper’s indignation at an industry that has left him behind, not motivated by an actual concept or self-reflection. As a result, the album often feels directionless and frequently falters due to its inability to justify its own existence. It’s entertaining at times: his wordplay is occasionally clever and his flows are technical as ever. But in terms of lyrical substance, well… there’s not much. Ironic, since this is one of the primary criticisms Eminem throws at mainstream hip-hop artists throughout the album. Doubly so because his lyrics have always been touted as his greatest strength. He barely reflects on the lower quality of his last album, and he never seriously considers that he might actually be over the hill. Focusing more on these topics could have made this album far more interesting, perhaps even forming his answer to Jay-Z’s “4:44” or Tyler the Creator’s “Flower Boy,” two projects praised for their naked vulnerability and introspection.
In a brief moment of lucidity in this otherwise messy, unfocused album, Eminem anticipates the backlash that Kamikaze would incur and addresses it in a skit titled “Paul.” His manager, the eponymous Paul, tells him over the phone that responding to criticism of an album with another album will just trap him in a cycle of repetitive, uninspired material, and that it’s a “slippery slope.” He doesn’t bother specifying where he believes Eminem is in danger of slipping to. Irrelevance? This is certainly a valid concern. Over the past decade, Eminem has fallen far from his prime, both in terms of popularity and the quality of his music. The current popular sound bears little resemblance to that of even his biggest hits. As a result, Eminem has become a rather puzzling figure, too prominent to outright forget or ignore, but too much of a relic to break back into the mainstream.
Perhaps he means it’s a slippery slope to controversy, though that’s something Eminem has always actively sought out. Never afraid to offend moral watchdogs or marginalized groups, his musical catalogue is full of songs peppered with homophobic, misogynistic language, as well as graphic depictions of rape and violence. When confronted about his problematic content in the past, he made half-hearted claims that he was trying to be better, that this was just the type of language he grew up with, and that when he used a word like “faggot” it was never his intent to belittle or hurt the gay community. The controversies that ensued never inflicted lasting damage to his career; if anything, they helped cultivate his image as a maverick who relished in getting a rise out of people.
It’s apparent that Kamikaze is no different in this regard. It was meant to be carried mostly by the shock value of the diss tracks and the controversies that followed them, the most egregious example being his use of a homophobic slur in his attack against Tyler the Creator, who recently came out as gay: “Tyler create nothin', I see why you called yourself a faggot, bitch.” This diss may have gone over well ten to fifteen years ago, when Eminem was at his peak, but it’s a disastrous, reprehensible move in our current social and political climate. Unsurprisingly, the use of the slur was met with outrage and heavy criticism from all sides. Which begs the question: is Eminem so obtuse that he does not realize that using this word, regardless of intention, is highly problematic? Or does he just not care? Does he simply want the attention that using this word will bring, good or bad? Whatever the case, by using it Eminem comes off as grossly ignorant and, again, a relic of a bygone, deeply regrettable era.
The tastes of this generation have swerved away from edgy, outrageous lyrics and disses, instead celebrating artists who either focus less on lyrics and more on overall sound, or artists whose lyrics build an intimate emotional theatre through which the performer and the listener can delve into the former’s psyche. This poses a particularly daunting challenge for Eminem. He has always relied primarily on two strengths: his technically demanding, breakneck flow, and his clever, often obscene wordplay. The beats he rapped over were serviceable, but they were never more than a backdrop to his bars, which were always the main draw. People wanted to hear how quickly he could spit, what creative rhymes and innuendos he could pack into each verse. But now that hip-hop has shifted away from this style, audiences’ standards have shifted too, and so they expect more from him. His lyrics are still clever, but they’re relatively surface-level and uninspired, especially when compared to the deep, complex stories and topics explored by today’s foremost lyricists, such as Kendrick Lamar. While it’s impressive that Eminem can rap with such high speed and precision, it’s not enough to carry an album, and arguably begins to wear thin once you realize that just because he can, doesn’t mean he should at every opportunity. And again, the production backing him up is nothing to write home about.
Eminem now stands at a critical juncture in his career, a choice between growth and stasis. He can consider the critiques coming from peers, critics, and fans as a challenge to improve rather than a personal attack. He can start to branch out beyond his established circle and collaborate with young, talented artists in the interest of progressing, moving his own art forward. Most importantly, he can choose to discard the homophobic and misogynistic content that has plagued his music for his whole career and genuinely reform himself. So far he’s only chosen to draw lines in the sand, isolate himself from the pack, and attack anyone he regards as other, which at this point is almost everyone.
But like it or not, communion, collaboration, and cooperation are now crucial to success in the music industry. Our value system as a society has more or less abandoned the idealization of “the lone wolf,” in that we do not exalt men who declare themselves islands anymore, the general perception being that they are just as performative and pretentious as the “phonies” they attempt to distinguish and distance themselves from. And so Eminem’s insistence on clinging to this edgy, devil-may-care, politically incorrect persona only marks him as archaic and ignorant, much like the people he used to challenge in his youth. He is no longer the hungry, scrappy underdog clawing his way to the top. He’s just another aging artist, futilely grasping for relevance in a world he’s too proud to respect or adapt to. Underneath the anger, the shocking lyrics and technical prowess, Eminem has nothing meaningful to say. And if he remains in this cycle of refusing to change, tearing apart critics regardless of the validity of their points, doubling down on the claim that no one can touch him even though he’s been irrelevant for years… it’s only going to further alienate him from mainstream audiences and peers alike. This is the slippery slope that Eminem seems to recognize but is still unwilling to come to terms with. Time will tell whether he regains his footing, or slips off the edge and into obscurity.