Eminem is right that music critics have taken a particular joy in dissecting his work.
The ‘90s were the nadir of comic books. Every negative stereotype you could lob at media from the Clinton years stuck true to the works of Marvel and DC. It was grimdark, eXtreme and spelled “s” with “z” (zorry, zpelled). Women rocked scoliosis-granting figures and men had muscles like bowling balls wrestling under their skin. It was power and masculinity defined by a 13-year-old boy hyped up on porn, Rambo and Cookie Crisp. Such fertile ground for Eminem to blossom.
Thing is, comics have evolved; Eminem hasn’t. Aging gracefully was never going to be easy for Em, as his best records had him alternating between slasher-flick fantasies, brutal self-effacing beat downs and the kid on the back of the bus screaming “Penis!” for a laugh. “Kim” is like curdled milk, but “Lose Yourself” and “Without Me” still bang, even if they do feel like relics from a more Limp Bizkit-accepting era. But Em’s ability to produce a “Stan” or “Real Slim Shady” has been replaced with sourpuss bars or, worse yet, Imagine Dragons-by-way-of-Macklemore anthemic rippidy-rap. For the last decade we’ve been stuck with Old Man Shady, “Yes I still hate Kim” and Makcleless. It might be for the best that class-clown Slim is gone, but any sense of joy he might have once brought has evaporated long ago, his condition further proved terminal by Kamikaze.
Mathers’ technical rapping still is still near unparalleled, but bringing that up before the lyrical content means there’s a huge asterisk hanging over that praise. “Oh yeah, and one more thing I want to mention/ Is you’re one dimension I’m a monkey wrench and I can flunk detention/ I love contentions, so welcome to the gun convention/ Muscles flexin’, gotta strut like a front suspension/ And you just stuck the key up in the ignition/ And gave me enough gas to flood my engine,” is brain-boggling with internal rhymes and the blistering speed, but: does it mean anything? There are any number of Yngwie Malmsteens in rap, but Mathers has fully devolved into one on Kamikaze, reveling in old excuses, beefs and complaints, the complete lack of substance unsalvageable by tongue-twister delivery. There’s even an argument that the ‘10s have produced enough hyper-technical MCs that Em’s once blistering flow is normal. Daveed Digs of Clipping, Kendrick Lamar and A-F-R-O can all deliver the same quadruple-stacked rhymes over off-kilter beats, but while still saying something.
Em’s hideous attack on Tyler, The Creator has already been discussed to death, but it shows his two larger problems, not just the rampant homophobia. He calls out Tyler for wanting attention, but that’s clearly all Em has craved since day one. He hates that everyone shit on Revival, claiming on “The Ringer” that rap critics were only using his name for hate-clicks and SEO optimization. But for the last three albums Em has been screaming against the media for not giving him a fair shake, recycling his old themes of showing up at some Pitchfork staffer’s apartment even while his own impudent rage is the only thing fueling Kamikaze.
There’s also the fact that Tyler, Earl and the rest of the Odd Future crew have grown up. Their days of slurs and revolting misogyny are behind them. It took about five years. Em has had four times as long to grow up. And, damningly, there’s plenty of good old man rap around. Ghostface Killah is only two years off 50 but has fully immersed himself in comic book goofiness for longevity. Even more destructive is the continuing dominance of Run the Jewels. El-P is 43 and was brought up on the shock/nerd-rap grounds of New York while finding a way to reinvent himself every album, and is now one half of the best duo in rap, both mid-40s dudes who don’t act young and don’t wallow in the past.
For Em, there are brief moments of self-consciousness, a break in the clouds. “I can see why people like Lil Yachty, but not me though/ Not even dissin’, it just ain’t for me/ All I am simply is just an MC/ Maybe “Stan” just isn’t your cup of tea/ Maybe your cup’s full of syrup and lean,” is Em surprisingly amicable and funny, only to follow it up with South Park-level crassness: “Jam a Crest Whitestrip in the tip of my dick/ With an ice pick, stick it in a vise grip/ Hang it on a spike fence, bang it with a pipe wrench.” Marshall is 45; this is just sad. Not even cringe-inducing, just sad.
Thing is, Eminem is right that music critics have taken a particular joy in dissecting his work. It’s because nerds like us love shit like this. Or, at least, we did. Kamikaze isn’t even entertainingly bad like Revival. It’s true that Em singing is one of the worst torture devices that can be unleashed on the ear, but he’s become boring. Like the comics he once emulated, the continuous arms race to be more shocking and more transgressive left him no room to grow. He’s jaded, paranoid, rap’s King Lear, seeing traitors and betrayers at every turn, when the world is simply passing him by. “Nine and Royce tell me I should take the high road,” he croaks. It’s time he listened to his betters.