“Every CD critics gave it a 3,
Then three years later they go back and re-rate it
Then called The Slim Shady LP the greatest
The Marshall Mathers was a classic
The Eminem Show was fantastic
But Encore just didn’t have the caliber to match it
I guess enough time just ain’t passed yet
A couple more years, that shit’ll be Illmatic”
– Eminem, “Careful What You Wish For”
Eminem has never played nice with critics. A simple journey through his discography provides ample proof. In truth, Em has toyed with rappers and pop stars alike, making short work of them across a variety of storied diss tracks. “The Sauce.” “Nail In The Coffin.” “Quitter.” “The Warning.” “Can-i-Bitch.” All share a similar pattern, in which Eminem embodies an apex predator of his choosing. Few dare go against him, and those that do throw stones have come to expect a boulder in response. Yet one foe has proved particularly tiresome to hip-hop’s beloved antihero, time and time again: critics.
Critics are far from tangible, akin to “the ominous they,” more concept than concrete. Striking from all angles, critics are often adjacent to anonymity, represented by the brand they serve. And those are merely the professionals; the internet era has spawned a variety of countless voices, which tend to be fuelled by reactionary impulses. We’ve seen it before, upon the release of last year’s Revival. I realize that I am, in fact, playing my part in critiquing Eminem’s Kamikaze. Yet I find no pleasure in tearing the man down, as so many critics have taken to doing. The idea that a legend should ever be dragged through the muck, even after Revival failed to meet his own lofty standards, simply feels disrespectful.
Yet part of me feels grateful that others relished in shitting on Revival, albeit for purely selfish reasons. Without the backlash, Kamikaze would simply not exist. It’s clear that negative reception played a role in lighting a fire under Em’s ass like he once professed to do for Dr. Dre back on “White America.” I imagine I was not alone in being utterly blindsided by the release of Kamikaze, proceeding to dive into the project with a renewed sense of expectation.
From the opening track, tone-setting “The Ringer,” it became evident that uncharted waters were on the horizon. For one, the instrumental arrived courtesy of IllaDaProducer, Ronny J, and Em himself; a far cry from Rick Rubin and Alex Da Kid, mainstays in his post-Relapse catalog. In truth, it felt somewhat surreal to hear Em navigating an icy, synth-driven instrumental, complete with 808-driven percussion. Yet such a technically gifted emcee had no qualms making short work of it, riding the beat with a renewed sense of oft-challenged consequence.
In truth, Eminem’s mastery of his craft has been taken for granted. KXNG Crooked said it best: “If I’m reviewing an album and I only focus on the genius elements of the emcee’s technique for two sentences, I have failed.” Entire essays can be penned highlighting Eminem’s affinity for bending language, and “The Ringer” alone features more flows than the majority of rappers bring across a single album. Yet what feels the most refreshing, I think, is the return of his personality. It’s hard not to get excited during the track’s climactic section, in which subtle moments call back to songs like “Square Dance” and “We As Americans.” Such is the beauty of penning such a dense discography; Eminem’s penchant for worldbuilding has given his music a welcome sense of interconnectivity.
I have already seen several ongoing narratives, conceptually at odds, despite drawing a similar conclusion. One essentially pegs Eminem as an “old-man-yelling-at-clouds” archetype, liable to spray would-be lawn explorers with lukewarm tap water. The second essentially paints him as Mr. Burns dressing up as Jimbo from The Simpsons, greeting audiences with a hearty “Ahoy there, fellow kids.” A lose-lose scenario to be sure. There’s no disputing that Eminem hails from a different era, as he details on “Greatest,” where Kool G Rap and Three Stacks reigned supreme. Yet Em’s recent production choices have been singled out as one of his weaknesses, with many hoping he might link up with contemporary hitmakers. Thus, a question is raised. Can a veteran rap over the same beats as the “kids” without sounding like an utter try-hard? More importantly, does it even matter?
In truth, Kamikaze’s production is probably Eminem’s best since Relapse, when Dr. Dre, Dawaun Parker, and Mark Batson conjured up a slew of horrific bangers. Efforts from IllaDaProducer, Ronny J, Mike WiLL Made-It, Tay Keith, Eminem and Luis Resto are solid across the board, with enough engaging beat switches to keep the sonic journey dynamic. While Eminem is more than capable of carrying a project through his voice alone, it helps when production is an added asset. Many instrumental moments shine, like the latter half of “Normal,” where Em conjures a hilariously vivid narrative centered around the irksome yet enigmatic “Milo,” or “Not Alike’s” gothic, distorted conclusion, upon which Eminem sinks teeth into his longstanding rival Machine Gun Kelly.
“You know, critics, man
Critics never got nothin’ nice to say, man
You know, the one thing I notice about critics, man
Is critics never ask me how my day went”
– Eminem, “On Fire”
Vocally, Eminem is rapping like a man possessed. Though previous forays into double time have occasionally felt like a “look-what-I-can-do” moment, his hyperspeed flow on Kamikaze feels more like an unrelenting combo. Perhaps such changes coincide with the return of swagger, and moments like “Not Alike” and “Lucky You” find Eminem delivering vivid imagery at speeds few peers could match. Luckily, Royce Da 5’9” and Joyner Lucas ably handle the challenge, thus solidifying their spot on Eminem’s island, alongside J. Cole, Kendrick, and Big Sean.
As far as emotional beats, heartstrings are tugged during D12 anthem “Stepping Stone.” Admittedly, the song may falter for those uninterested in Marshall’s crew, who previously dropped Devil’s Night and D12 World before losing Proof in a tragic and fateful night. Penultimate track “Good Guy” finds Eminem addressing his inability to find romantic peace, made all the more poignant by IllaDaProducer’s Kingdom Hearts sample. Jessie Reyez, channeling peak Nelly Furtado, delivers an impressive and surprisingly animated vocal performance, proving a welcome counterpart to Slim Shady. Some may find themselves wary of exploring such territory once again, but Eminem’s restrained performance imbues “Good Guy” with a welcome sense of sincerity.
It would be remiss to ignore “Fall,” in which Eminem takes to an eighties-night-drive instrumental to air his myriad grievances. Taking aim at Joe Budden, Akademiks, Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Lord Jamar, his “Forever” collaborators, and more; conversely, he plants his flag in the culture’s fertile ground, taking credit for shaping Hopsin, Logic, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Royce Da 5’9” and 50 Cent. A respectable roster, to be sure, and proof that Eminem’s influence goes beyond the scope of the critical circle-jerk. And rest assured, the negative backlash is coming. For, like a true Greek tragedy, Em appears destined to battle his critics beyond time itself.
As Paul Rosenberg warned on his titular skit, centering an entire project around the whims of haters is a slippery slope. Should Em find himself pestered by another onslaught of negative press, what might he do? Given his history of re-evaluating his albums post-reception, one has to wonder if Kamikaze is destined for a similar fate; he already closed out his recent “Fall” video by stomping a physical copy of Revival into the dust.
Yet this time, something feels different. The fans have once again taken to championing his cause. And why wouldn’t they? Kamikaze brought forth a spontaneity unfamiliar to an Eminem fan, from its unexpected release to its reinvigorated aura of confidence. Is it Eminem’s best album? In truth, it doesn’t matter, nor should he be doomed to forever do battle against himself. All I know is this: where the legacy of Slim Shady is concerned, it remains wise to stand on the right side of history.