The hardest thing about being a hip-hop fan in 2018 is watching legends turn into cannibals. Not to suggest that rap should ever be above self-critique – that's always been a major tenet of the genre. But certain artists seem to have forgotten what it's like to be young, dumb and numb. In their hunger for lasting relevance, some have even begun to feast on their own babies.
On Aug. 31, Eminem surprise released Kamikaze, his appropriately titled 10th studio album. By industry accounts he pulled off a successful suicide mission: It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week, pushing 434,000 album-equivalent units. But those receipts don't even begin to reflect the LP's divisive reception. In the digital age, even numbers lie. Or, as Mark Twain legitimately put it, "Lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Welcome to the era of hate streams. A close cousin to hate clicks – the metric beloved by media outlets that troll readers into submission with contentious clickbait — hate streams are the music world's zero-sum equivalent. And Eminem is the latest to benefit in a year defined by hip-hop's mega stars releasing subpar albums while coasting on controversy stoked by erratic rollout strategies and boiled-over beef with perceived competitors. The list of 2018 offenders (or beneficiaries, depending on your take) range from Kanye West, whose MAGA-hat mania drove Ye to debut atop the Billboard charts despite it earning a critical beatdown; to Nicki Minaj, whose tweetstorms in the weeks prior to and following Queen earned more coverage than the actual music, which debuted at No. 2. Even an artist like Drake, who is practically guaranteed to sit atop the charts for weeks with each new release, gets a boost from curiosity seekers on Spotify who can partake without having to purchase. It's partly why Pusha T's pre-release diss ("Story of Adidon") could be considered a win-win for Drake. Forget the battle rap; for a pop phenomenon, winning the war means prioritizing mass consumption over credibility.
Music it seems is no longer enough. Maybe it never was. (Hell, even the King of Pop moonwalked his biggest hit "Billie Jean" to the top of the charts with an assist from mythical tabloid fodder.) But today, shock and awe has become the go-to marketing plan for artists desperate to compensate for a lack of creativity. What they're really selling when you get right down to it is high drama.
Eminem has always had a flair for the dramatic. If ever there was a rapper who would fail to grow old gracefully, remaining juvenile and belligerent to the bitter end, we should've known it would be Marshall Mathers. This is the same emcee who climbed the charts by wearing his childhood insecurities on his sleeve. Throwing tantrums has always been his M.O. It was his mid-career years of sober reflection, if anything, that threw fans for a loop. He may be going out with a cliché bang on Kamikaze, but he hasn't sounded more like himself in years.
Perhaps no other genre in contemporary music grants artists enough rope to lasso their dreams or hang themselves. Somehow, the greats always manage to do both. The oddest part of Eminem's career arc has been watching him become one of those vapid pop stars he spent his formative years clowning to no end. The blonde-haired jester who once made mockery of acts ranging from Britney Spears to Moby is now a bearded fool yelling for the kids to get off his lawn.
Eminem's new album is so bad. How bad is it? So bad that in a year of laughable hip-hop hysterics, Kamikaze has become the lowest hanging fruit. The catch is he's conceivably in on the joke. At least, he desperately wants us to believe he is. Why else would he open Kamikaze with a five-and-a-half-minute diatribe pointing fingers at ... well, everybody: the critics that panned his previous album, December's lackluster Revival; the Lils of rap who've made his penchant for intricate lyricism increasingly obsolete, if not totally passé; the president who continues to be a huge point of contention between Eminem and his Middle America fan base since his appearance on BET last year damning Trump in a freestyle cypher. Even the album cover delivers a subtle wink by replicating the artwork from the Beastie Boys' classic 1986 debut, License To Ill. The tail end of a fighter plane features the letters FU-2 and a covertly spelled SUCKIT on the tail, similar to the original album's backward spelling of EAT ME. The other allusions made by the cover art are subtler. Like the Beasties, Eminem is a remnant of an era when white rappers had to earn the hard-won respect of black audiences before even thinking about crossing over. Or, in this case, crisscrossing over.
"Last year didn't work out so well for me," Eminem freely admits on the intro to the title track. Yet somehow the former clown prince of rap, who always enjoyed taking the piss out of self-important people, manages to take himself way too seriously. After releasing an album that everybody deservedly slept on eight months ago, one sure way to get a rise out of the entire industry is to diss the entire industry. He fires shots at rappers active and recently retired (Drake, Lil Yachty, Vince Staples, Tyler, the Creator, Machine Gun Kelly and Joe Budden) and personalities old and new (Charlamagne tha God, DJ Akademiks and, yes, Joe Budden). He hates mumble rap and everybody replicating the Migos flow, too. Basically, his beef is with the entire state of hip-hop.
But what's beef? If you're Eminem, beef is when a rapper half your age with even less relevance flirts with your teenaged daughter on Twitter. In 2012, Machine Gun Kelly, an Eminem clone down to his dyed-blonde hair, tweeted that Hailie was "hot as f---," adding, "in the most respectful way possible cuz Em is king." Dad didn't take it kindly and MGK alleges a feud has persisted between them since. But in dissing Kelly, Eminem has given him more relevance than he's enjoyed since signing with Puff Daddy six years ago. Kelly's clap back, "Rap Devil," which hit No. 1 on iTunes this week, is a bitter pill: "You're not getting better with time / It's fine, Eminem, put down the pen."
Indeed, Eminem is what happens when the ground rules to something you've dedicated your whole life to shift beneath you. He's the confused bridegroom, jilted at the altar. And like everything else he ever felt betrayed by – particularly the women in his life — he feels compelled to call rap out. He's less an example of a rapper who's matured beyond the genre than one who has yet to outgrow his own immaturity. Even his hip-hop critique hinges on the kind of paternalism that has been a defining characteristic of rap since its wonder years.
When Common released the song "I Used To Love H.E.R." in 1994, he was already an old soul at the tender age of 22 who'd grown disenchanted with rap's shifting identity. He personified hip-hop as a desirable young woman who'd abandoned his affections and left him heartbroken She'd traded in the pro-black medallions to be a gangsta bitch. She'd sold her soul for the funk of it. Now that anybody in the hood could hit, she was branded a hot commodity. More than a personal ode, his song encapsulated a moment. Rap was in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. A white dude from Detroit would end up serving as the catharsis.
Marshall Mathers, also 22 in 1994, was just a few years shy of being signed by the genre's biggest hitmaker and don of West Coast gangsta rap, Dr. Dre. Together, they'd change the game. But with the release of Kamikaze, it's clear that he's suffering from his own mid-career crisis as he watches rap passing him by.
Common's metaphorical misogynoir was acceptable for that era, presented as a voice of conscience at a time when rap was shaking off the last vestiges of self-consciousness. Eminem's preservationist role-play also casts hip-hop as a muse gone astray. Just as he's blamed so many of the women in his life – from his mother to his ex-wife and mother of his child – Em believes hip-hop has betrayed him, too. It's the album's unifying theme, intended or not, and he's out to bash in his characteristically hypermasculine way.
Through this lens, his controversial but familiar use of the homophobic slur "faggot," used to lash back at Tyler, the Creator on the song "Fall," for a perceived diss of Revival, takes on new context. (Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who contributed vocals to the song before its completion, has since distanced himself from it.) Suddenly, a song like "Normal," seemingly about a romance gone awry, becomes a metaphor for his dead-end relationship with rap. "How do I keep getting in relationships like this? Maybe it says something about me," he says on the song's intro. "Should I look in the mirror?" When he doubles up near the album's close with "Nice Guy" and "Good Guy," both featuring vocalist Jessie Reyez, the toxic pattern sound all too familiar. It's Eminem questioning why he's no longer good enough, then answering his question in the same breath. Because the truth is Eminem has been cheating on hip-hop, too.
The best song on the album, "Stepping Stone," finds Em making amends to his D-12 homies with a confessional that acknowledges his failure to hold the group together in the wake of longtime friend and frontman Proof's murder in 2006. "I don't know how to recapture that time and that era," he raps in a moment of honesty. "I've tried hearkening back to, but I'm fightin' for air / I'm barely chartin' myself." When he acquiesces to the truth, Eminem is his most compelling. "One minute you're bodying s*** but then your audience splits / You can already sense the climate is starting to shift / To these kids you no longer exist."
Ironically, he sounds most revived when paired alongside Joyner Lucas, a young Eminem disciple who leads their lyrical assault on "Lucky You." The song finds him in his favorite position, with his back against the wall like an underdog. But elsewhere on the album, he slips back into the territorial mode of an old-head. It's like that footage of comedian Chris D'Elia mocking Eminem's angry dad rap flow: "I'm driving a Porsche over the floorboards / over the foreign parts while you're in a Ford Taurus / getting an abortion and a divorce at the same time as Harrison Ford." The lyrics aren't Eminem's but the rappity-rap acrobatics are every bit his. Strangely, the more verbose he gets, the less he has to say. It hurts to see an emcee of his caliber laying it on thick with the lyrical miracle whip, as if he really needs to impress us with multi-syllabic rhyme schemes at this point in his career. Em spends so much time on Kamikaze slamming mumble rappers for their unintelligible and repetitive flows that he fails to realize his rap calisthenics sound no less ridiculous.
It's a shame that the man who made a name for himself as a self-deprecating battle rapper, then as gag-rap's Slim Shady and finally as a songwriter of considerable depth, capable of making light of his own inner demons, somehow lost his sense of humor. Kamikaze may not be a success on the surface. But Eminem has inadvertently succeeded at making himself the butt of his biggest joke yet. It's so funny he forgot to laugh.