“How could you possibly find anything redeemable about Kamikaze?” she asked. “And how could you recommend any Christian ever listen to Eminem?” I thought for a second. My wife had a point.
My first encounter with Eminem happened while I was standing at my high-school locker. A classmate walked past repeating the rapper’s obnoxious introduction from 1999’s The Slim Shady LP: “Hi, my name is...” Later that year, a speaker at school chapel singled out Eminem (along with Limp Bizkit and Destiny’s Child) as one of the bad artists we should definitely never listen to.
There was no denying it. Em’s lyrics were vulgar, the skits corny, and the grudges petty. With last month’s surprise release of Kamikaze, not much has changed. Last year, Jay-Z turned over a new leaf on 4:44, which includes these lines: “This f*** everybody attitude just ain’t natural.” With an album cover featuring the tail of a bomber that reads, “FU-2,” Kamikaze is Eminem doing the exact opposite. “Smash into everything / Crash into everyone!” he declares on “Kamikaze.” It’s Eminem contra mundum once more—against a world that has come to be made in his likeness.
The album opens with “The Ringer,” the perfect beginning to Eminem’s cathartic release. He delivers his lines like rounds of ammunition as he guns down fellow rap artists: “If I press the issue I could get the anger out (brrr) / Full magazine could take Staples out ...You mention me, millions of views, attention in news / I mention you, lose-lose for me, win-win for you.” He also targets the lack of originality in today’s rappers by doing a bit of his own mimicry, affecting Migos’ triplet flow: “Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow / everyone copies though? Probly no.”
At the 2017 BET Awards, Eminem performed “The Storm,” a freestyle evisceration of President Donald Trump. He issued an ultimatum: “Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his / I’m drawing in the sand a line, you’re either for or against.” Over the past year, however, he’s come to the realization that he shared a lot of fans with Trump. He admits as much on “The Ringer”: “That line in the sand, was it even worth it? / Cuz the way I see people turning's makin' it seem worthless / It's startin' to defeat the purpose, I'm watchin' my fan base shrink to thirds.” The artist who warned on “The Storm,” “What we’ve got in office now is a kamikaze,” sees now that the same penchant for suicidal destruction is what his own fans have loved about him. His authenticity. His unfiltered self-expression. His “say whatever you want whenever you want about whoever you want” attitude.
And so, as he says on Kamikaze’s title track, he’s decided to let his alter ego “jump behind the controls and try to fly into foes” once more. And it’s suicide. He’s decided to give a generation raised on his music exactly what they’ve wanted all along. “You wanted Shady? You got him!” he cries on “Fall.” But his vulgarity, his animosity, his pettiness, and his vitriol are so much less shocking in 2018—not because Slim Shady has softened, but because we’ve become a culture of kamikazes.
This is Eminem against a world that has come to be made in his likeness.
What becomes of a world where total authenticity and unapologetic self-expression is the new normal? Day by day, we reopen that vein for another fix; it feels good in the moment to say what we really feel. We agree with Em’s words on “Fall”: “They won’t tell me what not to say (nope).” We tweet. We comment. We speak crassly and irreverently in public. We return to the well-drawn lines in the sand and hurl insults. But the cathartic release only leaves us feeling emptier than ever and wondering, as Em also does on “Fall,” “Maybe I just don’t know when to turn around and walk away.” What becomes of a culture of kamikazes? Is the fleeting blaze of glory worth the destruction?
Kamikaze is an incredible mirror, if we have the stomach to look into it. It shows us the end of nihilistic self-expression. When a culture indulges its worst thoughts, when it gives full vent to its emotions, when it considers love for neighbor as wimpy “political correctness,” it’s on a path to societal suicide. We are being shaped by our participation in the comments sections of life. We are walking a certain path when we spew venom and fill our mouths with curses and bitterness. A dive bomb can feel a lot like freedom all the way up to the moment of impact. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all sinners, and that for those of us who wallow in our sinful state, “ruin and misery mark their ways.”
So what is a Christian to think of Eminem and Kamikaze? People have long used words to try to ascribe some semblance of meaning to their existence. Sometimes these are heated words, vulgar words, offensive words, confessions, and tell-alls. When we are tweeting or yelling or arguing or spilling our guts, in that moment we feel a rush—and we know we are alive. Kamikaze is a lyrical wonder along these lines. With speed and acuity Eminem crams thousands of words between his bars to prove, as he claims on “Greatest,” “No lie, I might be / The best to ever do it / The best to ever do it / The best to ever do it.”
There is amazing power in the listening ear—even, perhaps especially, in listening to this. Christians who listen, despite the coarseness and offense that they might encounter, meet their neighbor’s immediate need: the need to know that their existence means something, that their words are being heard. But so often, instead, Christians are the loudest in the arena, shouting at the top of our lungs like insecure, vindictive … well, kamikazes.
In Ephesians, Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Those words are for Eminem, and for us. When we hear anger like Eminem's—or are tempted to express something like it ourselves—may we find a way to counteract the bile with a redemptive voice. As Christians, we have a unique opportunity to speak words that give grace instead of offense, and hopefully bring life instead of self-inflicted death.