Since his reemergence in hip-hop nine years ago, Eminem’s career arc has been rocky to say the least. Perhaps lost as an artist, he’s bounced between deliveries, subject matter, and producers while simultaneously finding very little to be a natural fit. His music during this period really struggled to discover its footing completely. Relapse was an interesting idea with smooth production, but faltered in its conceptual execution and consistency; Recovery was a matured and more cohesive effort hampered by a one dimensional sound; The Marshall Mathers LP 2 boasted unreal highs, but suffered as a full listen due to a few really poor artistic choices; and finally, Revival was a cumulative disaster of faults, mixed in with some of the worst studio technical work to appear on a mainstream album. His ability to write pure rap was still clearly alive, but whether or not he could assemble a solid full body of work became a massive question mark. With doubt swirling and the public eye shifting elsewhere, there was only one solution…
…drop a seethingly angry album out of nowhere. Kamikaze.
First and foremost, the production value was an extreme step-up from from the absolute audio hell brought on by Rick Rubin during the past handful of years. Eminem’s performance was no longer burdened by disgustingly muddy mixing, and it saw a return to layered vocals to properly compensate for his relatively weak voice. Thanks to these small studio tweaks, he sounded clear and powerful behind the mic for the first time in ages. The beat choices also felt a lot more decisive and modern; moreover, even though the production credits (which included the likes of Mike Will Made It and Illadaproducer) may throw people off, the overall vibe felt more like an Eminem album than anything from the last ten years. The dark, simplistic, off-kilter nature of the instrumentation allowed for his rapping stay at the forefront of each song, which was refreshing. He’s an artist who has always gotten lost easily in oversaturated production, and clearly this was taken into consideration when structuring this album. The cohesion was also impressively tight, particularly given the awful whiplashing between incompatible styles on last year’s Revival. The only brief changeup was going into the mid-2000s Shady Records sounding throwback on “Stepping Stones;” however, this was purposeful and much less jarring than the hard right turns into Rick Rubin’s 80s rock “samples” that had become commonplace lately.
Eminem as an emcee was supremely engaging on Kamikaze, and it was a shocking treat. For the past half decade he had been in this weird place where he was writing really well, but the substance usually felt forced or non-existent. In addition to that, his delivery had become incredibly wonky, gutless, and rather hard to enjoy. With that in mind, it became obvious straight from the first few tracks that the flows, while still occasionally weird, had been dialed back to being more traditionally on beat. The gutlessness was also solved with the aforementioned return to vocal layering, which really helped his delivery to have some genuine impact. This really allowed for his penmanship to shine though, which was in tip-top condition for the vast majority of the album. His multisyllable rhyme patterns returned to feeling more conversational and less hamfisted, while his wordplay took on much more subtlety. For instance, there was one moment on “Fall” where he lead into a punchline about “Forever” (the posse cut alongside Drake, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne) by borrowing his own flow from 9 years ago. It rolled out so smoothly that it would have been easy to miss until the second or third listen. That sort of rewind factor was fantastic, and made it impossible to not desire subsequent listens. As far as subject matter goes, Kamikaze was significantly more vapid and self-indulgent than either The Marshall Mathers LP 2 or Revival, which was oddly a positive. It seems that in spite of the perception that songs like “Stan” have built about Eminem’s songwriting being grandiose, he’s actually most comfortable in the snide and angry mindset that he captured here. While it was initially a bit of a shock to hear him rapping about hating critics, hating other rappers, knocking people out, guns, and calling Trick Trick, it truly felt like he had allowed his real personality to come out again. Removing the rose-coloured glasses, the vast majority of his best work has always been self-obsessed fury and vitriol. Kamikaze really was no different than a record like the original Marshall Mathers LP in that regard, and it was a fun listen because of it.
The aforementioned “Stepping Stone,” however, was the one track on this album with a much more emotional foundation. Though they’ve not released a studio album since 2004, it marked the official end of D12. “Stepping Stone” went heavily into detail about how Proof’s untimely death tore the collective apart and rendered them dysfunctional even through multiple attempts to recapture the feeling and make a comeback. It was handled incredibly tastefully with Eminem shouldering a lot of the blame, but also being blunt about needing everyone to move past the group so that they can all remain friends. The production, as mentioned, was a throwback to the sound of the label during D12’s hayday. It was a nice touch, and a fittingly melancholy end to a group limping out of years of turmoil.
The features on this album definitely seemed to catch a lot of attention on drop day, and fortunately they did not disappoint. Joyner Lucas, Royce da 5’9”, and Jessie Reyez each brought a unique flavor to their tracks. Joyner’s opening verse to “Lucky You,” a bit of a before and after story about fame, matched Eminem’s level of energy perfectly and accomplished exactly what the song needed it to do. On the sillier end of the spectrum, Royce brought much appreciated comic relief to the opening of “Not Alike,” which of course came immediately after the emotional strain of “Stepping Stone.” Jessie Reyez appeared on both of the combination tracks “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy,” where she promptly asserted herself as one of the most fitting singers to perform alongside Eminem. Her humor matched his perfectly, and the chemistry was simply delightful. Overall, the features felt like genuine collaborations rather than random names making a cameo. It was a nice change of pace, and nobody came across as redundant.
There was an additional unlisted feature by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on “Fall.” It sounded nice, but there isn’t really much else to be said aside from the fact that he was angry it stayed on the album.
Kamikaze was unapologetically midwest, and for that reason it will likely always be a polarizing album. The speed rap, trap influence, shock value, and hyper-lyrical writing style are all staples of the region currently, and it’s not going to be every listener’s cup of tea. That being said, Eminem did these things extremely well. From start to finish, nothing felt out of place. Even the weaker tracks such as “Normal” were amusing and played a role in making the overall listen more complete. He overcame many of the musical issues he’s been grappling lately, and it reflected itself in a solid project. It wasn’t perfect, but he’s never been the perfect artist. What it was, though, was Eminem’s most natural sounding release in over 15 years after a litany of awkward and confusing detours. Fortunately he seemingly found his way back on track, as Kamikaze was an excellent listening experience.