It’s just so easy to make fun of today’s rappers. The face tattoos, the Styrofoam cups, the nonsense ad libs, the dream-murmured flows—Saturday Night Live sent up the look, Jay-Z filleted the sound, and now Eminem devotes much of his surprise new album, Kamikaze, to taking down the culture. The likes of Migos and Lil Pump are to the 45-year-old rapper what boy bands and Britney Spears were to him almost two decades ago: not only targets for his crass but intricate tirades, but also means through which Eminem can grab for attention and controversy.
Actually, though, the anger he spews against 2018’s young stars is of a different sort than it was in the Total Request Live era. He seems genuinely mad, threatened, and hurt, rather than simply trolling. That’s because Eminem’s December 2017 album, Revival, despite debuting at No. 1 on the Hot 200, failed to generate hits, conversation, and lasting sales. Whereas that record was portentous and sprawling, Kamikaze is forceful and quick. And rather than pretending to not be bothered by Revival’s reception, he’s made an album-length Downfall-style freak-out, venting about the artists who’ve taken his spot, insulting the critics who don’t give him his due, mourning his own feelings of decline, and preempting criticism that all of this is a pretty masturbatory thing to do.
The opener, “The Ringer,” accomplishes these aims in overwhelming fashion—he could have just released it as a single and claimed victory, as most of the rest of Kamikaze just serves as reiteration. Dipping into the trendy triplet flow and then accelerating into dexterous verbal barrages, he snipes at young rappers in specific (“Lil Pump, Lil Xan imitate Lil Wayne”) and in general (“I heard your mumblin’ but it’s jumbled in mumbo jumbo / The era that I’m from will pummel you”). He calls back to his Donald Trump disses of 2017, claiming that they earned him a visit from the Secret Service. He gripes at “media journalists” who panned him (or rather: “Meaty, a journalist / Can get a mouthful of flesh / And yes, I mean eating a penis”). He does it all in peak form, disgusting and entertaining, adding in a riff about color blindness just for fun.
He delivers variants on the same routine over the next few tracks, though he does keep finding new hooks, greater rates of syllable delivery, and fresh annoyances to zero in on. Often, he plays a hip-hop version of Weird Al Yankovic, replacing the words of commonly heard flows with nursery-rhyme nonsense: “Brain dead, eye drops,” goes his version of “Bad and Boujee.” His point is that words don’t matter to kids these days, which is a fair—though also evergreen—charge that he predictably extends into a referendum on the intelligence of the generation below him. There are a ton of comparisons to be drawn between him and Nicki Minaj, another filthy poet who’s been chalking up her dwindling reach to the supposedly shrinking intellects of the younger masses.
Really, though, Eminem is waging a war over aesthetics, and Kamikaze is a better listen than Revival because its concision confirms Eminem’s value as an entertainer: Turn the album on and, for however you respond to its homophobia and sexism and callous invocations of mass shootings, you might find yourself caught up as he ornately weaves one terrible thought into another. Recent albums by objects of Eminem’s ire (Playboi Carti, Drake) don’t even try for the same appeal. Instead, they radiate vibes, altering the listener’s perception of time; the resulting pleasures lack both the stimulation and fatiguing features of the Eminem experience. Maybe the popularity of that woozy, meaning-agnostic sound in this moment owes to the nature of streaming, or to the national mood. Or maybe it’s just the eternal pendulum swing between the poles of popular taste.
Certainly it’s refreshing that in a genre especially obsessed with statements of dominance, Eminem doesn’t disguise his feelings of irrelevance. He does, however, try to claim his influence. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Joyner Lucas, and a few other lyrics-minded Millennials get featured and/or name checked as disciples. Even his enemies owe him: “Cause if I’m the music that y’all grew up on / I’m responsible for you retarded fools.” Throughout, he strains his lungs and his brains, methodically arguing with critics who’ve nicked him for being too poppy or too wordy; his response is that they just can’t be pleased. He may be correct about that, and he’s proven once again that he’s great at what he does. But the darkest joke among all the punch lines here is that sweat and righteousness don’t guarantee the affection of others—not now, but also not ever before.