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Eminem’s surprise album Kamikaze is his best in years

For the most part, Kamikaze is a diss-filled power move.

Interscope Records
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

At 12:00 am on Friday morning, Eminem casually tweeted out a link to a surprise new album, Kamikaze, and set the late-night internet on fire.

The 13-track album, streamable on Apple and Spotify, is the rapper’s first release since his 2017 LP Revival. Produced by Eminem and Dr. Dre, it pays homage to the classic Beastie Boys album License to Ill and features collaborations with Joyner Lucas, Jessie Reyez, Royce da 5’9, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

More importantly, it features Eminem in full-on old-school mode, dropping a litany of classic Marshall Mathers verses. It’s an occasionally uneven album, but it’s full of fire and full of Eminem’s always-impressive skill. It also reminds us, as few Eminem moments have lately, why so many hip-hop fans believe he’s the GOAT.

This might sound surprising after the negative reception to Revival, which drew the worst critical response of Eminem’s career despite sporting flashy collabs with the likes of Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. But on Kamikaze, Eminem is clearly back on his bullshit, and so much better for it.

Kamikaze takes aim at the unoriginality of recent rap — and it has plenty to say

Throughout Kamikaze, Eminem takes aim at the stagnant feel of recent rap and its purveyors.

From the very first track, “The Ringer” — which opens with a brutal litany of rap disses before seamlessly shifting to the rapper’s well-established anti-Trump rage — we get Eminem at his self-aggrandizing, self-deprecating, dizzyingly self-assured best. Along with savaging a bunch of people (“Lil Pump, Lil Xan, imitate Lil Wayne,”) he devotes a whole verse to professing himself mystified by recent rap trends, à la “Gucci Gang,” with their “subpar bars” and “choppy flow.”

Em makes the point again and again that he’ll never stint us of a good rhyme or a well-crafted run-on lyric. In stellar tracks like “Lucky You” (his utterly fire collab with Joyner), “Not Alike,” and “Fall,” he asserts his confidence that he still has a place in rap — and that rap desperately needs him.

He does this musically, especially through the use of trap beats (“Not Alike”) and musical references to other artists. By using duplicated clips and structural mimicry, he summons musical memories of Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Migos to ironically illustrate how overly copied their work has become, and how lazy it is to simply lay down a weak verse over someone else’s song structure.

Lyrically, so many people get dissed on Kamikaze that it’s easier to talk about who doesn’t. Naturally, Em’s longtime mentor Dr. Dre, who co-produced, is safe, as are his album collaborators. But “if you ain’t Joyner, Kendrick or [J.] Cole or Sean then you’re a goner,” he promises. By the time the album ends, pretty much everyone is dead:

He’s also good to the likes of Hopsin, Cypress Hill, and Travis Scott. (Kathy Griffin also gets a shoutout on the title track: “Kathy Griffin, stackin’ ammunition / Slap the clip and cock it back on competition.” She has already tweeted her delight over the reference.)

But there’s narcissism in Eminem’s benevolence, too. “Don’t tell me ’bout the culture,” he sings in “Fall.” “I inspired the Hopsins, the Logics, the Coles, the Seans, the K-Dots, the 5’9s, and, oh, brought the world 50 Cent” — the latter a reference to Eminem signing Fiddy onto his label and jumpstarting his career.

Eminem is always best when he’s self-deprecating and confessional

Of course, since this is Eminem, he’s also ready to diss himself. “What I’ll never be is flawless,” he assures us; “all I’ll ever be is honest.” In typical fashion, his most boastful songs are also inundated with references to his failures and errors. Throughout Kamikaze’s second track, “Greatest,” he interpolates Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” most brilliantly when he self-mockingly notes, “Revival didn’t go viral!”

The theme of overcoming Revival’s failure reverberates throughout the album, but Eminem also second-guesses his way through his approach to relationships — most notably in “Stepping Stone,” when he addresses his now-defunct rap group D12 and his conflicted feelings about their dwindling friendships and fragmenting career trajectories. He also questions his personal approach to combating President Trump.

Referring to his incendiary anti-Trump freestyle “The Storm,” Eminem notes in “Ringer” that while he feels committed to critiquing the administration, he feels more sympathy now with the Trump-voting fans he initially rejected: “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.”

But while Eminem is letting his liberal colors show in reference to Trump, elsewhere on the album, they’re a lot muddier. Eminem is in a familiar place in terms of “shock rap” doubling poorly as social critique, in that he’s still dropping homophobic slurs and frequently deploying homophobic gay panic without apology.

On Kamikaze, the virulent misogyny of his past, which has often been presented as tongue-in-cheek, gets funneled into a darkly satirical critique of virulent misogyny called “Normal.” In it, he takes on the persona of a violently possessive, controlling boyfriend — arguably in order to critique toxic masculinity, but because this is Eminem, you’re never quite sure. See, for example, his character’s confession that “I slipped up and busted her jaw with / a Louisville Slugger ’cause all’s it / really does is make our love / for each other grow stronger.”

He follows this up later with the pair of tracks “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy,” which both trade on the popular conception of the “nice guy” as an embodiment of the kind of entitled misogyny that leads to the violence we see in “Normal.” It’s not exactly groundbreaking, and as always, it’s so difficult to uncouple Em’s critique of misogyny from actual misogyny that it might as well be one and the same. But for what it’s worth, it looks like he’s at least read “Cat Person” like the rest of us.

The album finishes out with “Venom,” Eminem’s contribution to the soundtrack for the upcoming Tom Hardy superhero movie. It’s an anticlimactic, predictably overproduced note on an album that’s otherwise, well, spitting plenty of venom. But despite a few low notes, above all, Kamikaze reminds us loud and clear why Eminem is “a fucking invincible, indefensible, despicable difficult prick” — in the most compelling way possible.