Review Summary: Peculiar purpose prevents perfection, but never has an identity crisis sounded quite so compelling.Revival
was an uncomfortable milestone in the rap career of Marshall Mathers. Sure, fans and critics alike had been picking up on the inconsistencies in his work ever since the days of Encore
, and only the most dedicated fan could make the argument that any album since then could hold a candle to his earlier output. This was different though. There was the overwhelming feeling that - perhaps not unfairly - the world was giving up on Eminem. As a result, it might not be entirely cynical to contemplate that Kamikaze
dropped completely unannounced as something of an exercise in damage limitation. How could it fail to fulfil the hype so drastically again when there was no hype to begin with? Or, even worse, what if there had been an announcement, and it failed to raise any eyebrows in the first place? The concept seems almost unheard of for someone at the forefront of rap relevance for twenty years…
It would be a little too expected to label Kamikaze
as return to form, or as a more determined version of Eminem. Motivation and ability have never been questionable traits of his output, but in moving away from the classic late 90’s Dre-drenched gangsta rap sound, the misfires have been uncomfortably more present with each passing release. Much to the disappointment of his listeners, Eminem will never again be the cocky, twenty-something rockstar, as unpredictable in his behaviour as in his lyrics, so naturally a sense of danger will be compromised. But in breaking the more recent formula and returning to some of his roots, Kamikaze
manages to present a leaner version of the updated model to outstanding effect.
Often recently it has seemed that Eminem’s flows have been adjusted to compensate for the backing tracks - even on the record-breaking and undoubtedly impressive ‘Rap God’, the bars gave off the impression that they were there as an exercise in performance rather than to fit a narrative. In the opinion of this reviewer, this takes away one of Eminem’s most important skills - he is a vibrant and descriptive storyteller, particularly at his most gory and controversial. Place that against the anaemic backing of ‘Rap God’ and it loses vital impact. As crassly simplistic as this may come across, the theme of Kamikaze
(as with all the best Eminem albums) is ‘f*** everyone else, I’m the best’. Eminem has never been lacking in confidence assuredly, but it’s when he has specific targets that his arrogant anger packs the biggest punch. Fortunately, once again, no-one is safe from the razor tongue. Eminem is famously prone to making enemies with the flick of one well-written simile, and in opener ‘The Ringer’ the sizeable list of targets runs from Mike Pence to Machine Gun Kelly, his fans to Lil’ Xan, and before one has time to contemplate the lack of chorus, nearly six breakneck minutes have passed and the sly, satisfied ‘oh, he means business’ feeling, that has been missing for years, returns. The mumble rap genre is the target of bar after bar of cheap shots and ribbing during ‘Not Alike’ and ‘Lucky You’, reminding the current crop of Soundcloud rappers of the importance of a sense of humour. Elsewhere, the soulfully smooth backing of ‘Fall’ is home to the devastating (and liable to be most controversial) blows he lands on Odd Future, amongst others. And to top it all off we get two fantastic Paul skits.
One facet of Em’s storytelling in recent years that hits the spot every time, however, is his approach to writing about relationships. ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘Kim’ and ‘The Kiss’? This is not Eminem anymore. It is a joy to hear his almost naive and clumsy feelings hitting the paper again on ‘Normal’, where he portrays the role of long-suffering boyfriend on the one hand, but ruining it all by being completely intolerable to live with. Sure, some of the murderous edge has been blunted, but this is no less clever or compelling than his older works on the subject. Somewhat more genuine on the heartstrings, however, is ‘Stepping Stone’ where he seems to put the final nail in the coffin of D12 by traversing the tightrope of resentment for carrying them all to success and sorrow for using them as the titular leg-up in his own career.
The production on Kamikaze
doesn’t ever hit the simplistic highs of his 2000s output, but gone are the cloudy mid-level backing tracks that served a limited purpose in the Rubin era, and back are clicky, clean hi-hats, bouncing, playful synths, the treble on the vocal is enhanced again, and while a number of the tracks take a clear trap direction, the overall experience is much more hi-def than bass heavy.
Whilst it would be unfair to describe Kamikaze
as top-heavy, it does somewhat fizzle out thematically and quality-wise towards the back-end. Had they been included on a standard 18-20 track Eminem affair, one could imagine ‘Nice Guy’ and ‘Good Guy’ easily gelling together as a bittersweet one-two (complimented captivatingly by Jessie Reyez’s unconventional but furious vocals) perched in the middle of the album before segueing into the pure vitriol and venom that Marshall Mathers has made his trademark. While they are very satisfying listens in their own right, they lack a little immediacy and relevance given that the ‘she’s f***ing crazy but so am I’ quota has already been met with ‘Normal’. As for the finale, here we have the only true mis-step. Yes, to close us out, the aforementioned ‘Venom’ is what we get, but unfortunately in name only. As a tie-in to the upcoming Marvel movie, it’s a very passable banger with expectedly professional flow, and just about enough menace to keep the track ticking over - but it all just doesn’t quite feel... enough. Given the no-holds barred bile of the bulk of the record, one can sense the trigger finger loitering over the autopilot button, not quite hitting home as hard or with the same level of conviction. Add to that the seemingly standard Mathers trope of an unforgivably amelodic chorus (which fortunately has been absent on the whole during the album with the exception of ‘Stepping Stone’) and we’re left with a slightly sour taste to dampen the shine of the preceding work.
When taking a step back and consuming the record as a whole, sometimes it is a little unclear where the real subject of Eminem’s ire lies. Sure, there are countless hilarious callouts and name drops, but overall, what do we put more stock in? The overbearing defensiveness of his claims of having nothing to prove, or the often uncomfortable feeling that Kamikaze
is an angry admittance of fault? On ‘The Ringer’, we’re treated to a four-bar tale of how, in spite of his ‘ex-fans’ demands to return to an earlier sound, he vehemently refuses, as it would just make him like everyone else in the industry. Further, we have the (seemingly farfetched) claims that Revival
was just misunderstood and somehow went over everyone’s heads. However, despite the protestation of the artist, this body of work doesn’t sound like the piece that completes the puzzle, and it doesn’t make Revival
make more sense. It doesn’t sound like an ‘I told you so’ to the doubters, nor is it an awkwardly shuffling return to The Marshall Mathers LP
in a bid to remain relevant. One can’t help but admire that despite the final product seemingly admitting that Rick Rubin wasn’t the best production choice, or that dropping a feature from pop’s who’s-who on every other track will invariably water down the impact, or even more plainly that dropping a new record 9 months after the last one doesn’t scream of confidence and satisfaction in your last offering, Eminem emerges from this not only unscathed, but triumphant. In spite of suffering from a lack of direction, Kamikaze
sounds like a manic, schizophrenic smash through the childish pettiness, rage, punnery, cynicism and pure hunger that every fan of Eminem has identified with.
And it’s a f***ing great record as a result.