If hip-hop were a daytime TV drama, the series finale would feature a disheveled doctor stepping out of an ominous operating room to tell all of The Culture that rap is going to be just fine. If this reads as equal parts trite and dramatic, that’s resoundingly because bemoaning the state of hip-hop to the point of it needing to be saved is equal parts trite and dramatic—and infantilizing. There is too much good music for this sentiment to be taken seriously.
Yet, rather than have another conversation about the systematic difficulties and failures of music discovery, or rehash the truth that we could all stand to be better rap fans, we should be more interested in moments where the stars align for hip-hop to flourish, and pride spoils the pot.
On wax, Em sounds fed up, frumpy, and tired. The album is nothing if not a series of battle-rap-ready moments packaged for mainstream consumption. Fellow rappers and critics alike find themselves in Eminem’s sights, and while his stans who embody the pitfalls of backpacking culture rejoiced, the remainder of hip-hop had to ask: why?
The answer, for one, is not to sell records. Eminem does not need to be negative to move units. Eminem is a great rapper; he is technically proficient in the physical act of rap. Some, like Crooked I, for instance, may go as far as to call him “a master wordsmith.” His legacy, among other things, is one of creating perfectly inelastic products. He will always sell. The stans will flock to whatever he produces and celebrate it unquestionably. Yes, negativity is engrossing and people flock to the bad before the good, but these are not the games Eminem must play. His platform affords him the privilege of choice, and the choice he made was to tear down a grip of artists ranging from Lil Pump and Lil Xan to Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, to Machine Gun Kelly of all people.
On Kamikaze, and in the last half-decade or so, Eminem fancies himself the enemy of mumble rap (“Lucky You”), critique (“The Ringer”), award shows (“Fall”), and everything else that supposedly plagues hip-hop. In the context of Eminem’s rabid obsession with craft and rap purity, these are reasonable positions for him to take. He is a hip-hop Luddite on all accounts, yet music is one of the few places where the platitude of making love over war is a viable option for revolution.
Where Eminem went wrong on Kamikaze was in his cannibalistic approach. The cast of villains on Kamikaze seem nonsensical when taken as a collective. For one, both Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt are lyrical powerhouses producing culture-shifting works. On his tenth album, Eminem attacked the thing he wished to nurture when, in truth, he had every opportunity afforded to him to turn Kamikaze into a real, legacy-rapper-curated showcase. If Em feels hip-hop is dying (“Hatata batata, why don’t we make a bunch of fuckin' / Songs about nothin' and mumble!”) and he must suit up and save it; that would have been the most effective approach.
Eminem’s platform and impact are massive and his name inspires a sizable media ripple effect. The day Kamikaze dropped, a slew of articles appeared detailing the who’s who of Em’s lyrical attacks. Imagine if, instead, Eminem used Kamikaze to spotlight the artists he truly believes in; imagine the auxiliary articles deep-diving those upcoming acts and the subsequent interviews and collaborations that would come from an album of Eminem co-signs. The move would not be groundbreaking, but it would be a welcome change from complaining for the thrill of it.
At the least, featuring up-and-coming acts would have helped Eminem appear sincere. Instead, on Kamikaze, Eminem is a mostly-one-man-army and as a result, his tirades against the ires of contemporary hip-hop culture sound disingenuous. Of course, Eminem is an angry rapper and no one is expecting him to make tender songs cataloging his favorite new rappers. If Em must send shots, he should at least invite some new-school cats to be his young gunners. Aside from upping Eminem’s philosophical consistency, the move would have scaled back the album’s grouchy air.
Displeasure does not need to invite more displeasure. Take Phonte, another “master wordsmith” by any and all measures, and his recent Twitter co-sign of Louisville rapper Jack Harlow. It was a low-energy, high-reward act that plays as the perfect foil to all of Kamikaze and any legacy artist who is too stubborn to see the forest through the trees. The act of “saving hip-hop,” if we must frame it as such, does not have to be some grand show. Really, it taps into one of our most basic human desires: sharing. All anyone has to do to “save hip-hop” is tell a friend to tell a friend. It works: for days after Phonte’s tweet, critics and tastemakers were discovering and discussing Harlow. Following his tweet, Twitter was briefly jovial, tapping into the heart of how music connects us. The rub here is that Eminem’s reach, in terms of audience size and media influence, is far greater than Phonte’s.
There is also the elephant known as Shady Records, home to the Griselda gang (Westside Gunn and Conway) and Compton’s Boogie. Eminem has some of the best lyricists and rappers signed to his name, but they are nowhere to be found on his album. He gives brief shoutouts to established artists, and cedes the floor to Joyner Lucas on “Lucky You.” Meanwhile, Westside Gunn released one of the best rap albums of the year, Supreme Blientele, is hip-hop to his core, and somehow did not make the cut for Eminem’s album. The Griselda omission alone suggests that Eminem does not have the wherewithal to execute his grand dream of keeping hip-hop, hip-hop.
Unless that’s not the dream at all. We have to wonder: why is Eminem choosing this fraught avenue to set rap right. One answer may well be pride. For Eminem to uplift upcoming artists who are molding hip-hop in the image he sees fit, and as we know there are plenty of them, he would have to admit he was wrong about rap.
Eminem would also have to admit that he was wrong about himself, and as well all know, pride is no easy beast to best. As Craig Jenkins proposed in his Vulture review of Kamikaze, Eminem is looking for scapegoats for his formal failures, and blaming a crumbling culture for his poor reviews is far easier than self-assessing. That’s where Eminem ultimately goes wrong: he is too proud to “save” hip-hop, where “saving hip-hop” really means accepting that The Culture is alive and well.
Eminem made hip-hop his lifeblood, and now he would rather self-destruct in the name of the art form as he understands it, than see it evolve. In this case, Eminem is a martyr for one.
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