In December 2017, Eminem dropped his 9th studio album, “Revival” to a mostly negative reception. The constant debate around the quality of that project, where Em fits in today’s hip-hop landscape, and if he’s lost “it” is how Slim Shady brought in the new year.
Whether “Revival” was good or not, improperly promoted, or just ahead of its time is irrelevant today. People didn’t like it at the time of its release so it’ll go down as a failure, even if it ages OK. Eminem seemed to realize as much, immediately getting back in the booth to record “Kamikaze” which came out in August.
A complete 180-degree turn from the introspective and more vulnerable lyrics found on its predecessor, “Kamikaze” displayed a more competitive Eminem, albeit combative and defensive. That brought us back to the questions of the “Rap God” lyricist we started the year with. But the questions now are less about Eminem’s abilities, and more about what we expect of someone with his abilities – and track record. The only way to draw those expectations is to have a clear picture of who Eminem is in 2018.
Several tracks from “Kamikaze” find Eminem either mimicking the sound and flow of contemporary hip-hop, or completely conforming to it. Either way, he unsurprisingly executes the songs with superior lyricism to the artists creating the wave, even if he fails to capture the same “vibe” they seek; it’s doubtful Em was ever chasing that vibe. He approached this project with clear goals: to make-up for the miss that Revival was and prove he can still be a successful rapper, and to send warning shots to anyone whose publicly taken a swipe at him recently. Both goals were accomplished, but the latter may be what defines him in this era.
Of the rappers Eminem dissed, Machine Gun Kelly was the only to respond musically. MGK put out the song and accompanying video Rap Devil, which prompted the Killshot response from Eminem.
This back-and-forth is surprising yet predictable all at once. Surprising because Eminem is too big an artist to concern himself with someone like MGK, whose music likely wasn’t on the radar of 3/4 of Eminem’s fan base, maybe more. Jay-Z went through a similar phase just before this decade where rappers like Cam’ron and The Game constantly took shots at him, and while those were bigger names at the time than MGK is now, they weren’t close to the level of a Jay-Z. Thus, Hov never dedicated a full songs’ worth of energy to them and they never got a chance to knock him off his pedestal. Sure, there were people that wanted see Jay-Z engaged in all out warfare, but he opted against giving those rappers a larger platform.
Eminem’s lyrical engagement with MGK was predictable, however, because he’s a different kind of MC. Em has always been considered a confrontational battle-rapper, concerned with the art of rap more than any business matters or personal brand. Any bars directed at him, and especially his daughter Hailie, is an invitation for him to display his skills in the form of shots fired. But that can be detrimental for an artist as big as Eminem, who had nothing to gain in this particular battle. He’s expected to slaughter MGK, who conversely has everything to gain. When the all-out slaughtering doesn’t happen, the perception is that Em lost the battle – or at the very least, he didn’t win it.
Suddenly, we view Eminem through the prism of the old rapper whose skills may be diminishing a little, when actually he may be as lyrically sharp as ever. Some will look at him as the old rapper name dropping younger rappers to cling on to relevancy, in a similar vein as Kanye West making music with younger rappers. One thing clear from Eminem’s last two albums, and maybe further back, is that his musical content isn’t as appealing, even if he still had the lyrical delivery to enhance it. The backlash he received from Revival is the only thing that made Kamikaze interesting.
Eminem in 2018 is a legend losing a fight against a new era’s demand to conform. He’s being dragged into this new era of social media, click bait and sensationalism whether he likes it or not. The only two directions he can go in this era is over to the sandbox with the kids, or to the big table with the grownups. I expect Eminem to play with the kids for a little longer because it’s always been where he’s most comfortable. Eventually he’ll have to join the big boys in making GOOD grown-up music, however, because it’s what fans expect of a 45-year-old lyrical rapper.