The ability to stop the world in its tracks with the release of a surprise project should not be taken lightly. All year we’ve seen artists outdoing themselves in the name of free promotion, yet some of the most magnetizing moments have arrived in the absence of prior fanfare: the jolting announcement of EVERYTHING IS LOVE by Beyonce and Jay-Z; The Weeknd’s darkened My Dear Melancholy, EP that saw him harken back to his earlier sound; Drake’s “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What” singles that have stuck to the charts like glue.
It takes established starpower and an undeniably rabid fanbase to pull off the surprise release with such success, and over the past weekend two figures who fit that description did just that within 24 hours of each other. Soon after Eminem sent annotators at Genius.com into a frenzy transcribing each lyric to Kamikaze, Childish Gambino doubled up with his second astounding video this year in “Feels Like Summer.” As unalike as Eminem and Gambino’s projects are in tone, mood and aesthetic, the two are joined at the hip in their underlying theme: after both creatives have piled up a laundry list of accolades over the course of their careers, they’re allowing the ones coming up behind them to impact their next move.
When Childish Gambino works to bring the trending artists of the day into his art, he’s doing it to further his own vision in a way that would otherwise be impossible. His animated persona holds the spotlight at the start of “Feels Like Summer,” but as soon as he turns his head to watch Trippie Redd and Lil Pump race past him, the focus is removed from atop his shoulders and scattered throughout his surroundings. For the rest of the video, the camera keeps the audience guessing as to which cameo will appear next on screen, while only occasionally cutting back to Gambino, the static figure charting his own path amongst the fray.
Themes of searching for his place amidst the community around him are nothing new for Gambino. On his 2011 debut album Camp, he confesses to this truth on the very first song: “I just wanna fit in, but nobody was helping me out / They talkin’ hood shit, and I ain’t know what that was about,” he raps on “Outside.” For the rest of the tape, the audience hears similar stories of his struggles for acceptance, whether getting more laughs when he got laughed at on “Firefly,” or stealing Tommy Hilfiger jackets from lost and found on “Hold You Down.”
Years later, however, he’s emerged into one of the most prominent figures in the entertainment industry, and that superstar status has all but eliminated such insecurities. Even while sporting ragged, ripped clothing and unkempt hair in his latest video, he’s comfortably established in his element, watching the activity around him out of bored curiosity rather than an anxious nervousness. Vibrant and harmonious, the community he envisions around him is filled with a playful air of fellowship, placing younger faces like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert next to OGs such as J. Cole and Janelle Monae.
Such an embrace of the new generation of rappers speaks to Gambino’s outlook at this stage in his career. Just like how he brought on Blocboy JB and others to contribute ad-libs to “This Is America,” his decision to include such rappers in this video shows how he understands the role they play in the overall hip-hop landscape, adding new dimensions and broadening the scope of the culture’s sound. Throughout the scene, his demeanor is calm and unchanging, no matter what eye-catching interactions are taking place around him. He might recognize and appreciate their relevance, but he’s confident enough to continue on his own way, without getting sidetracked or feeling the need to lash out at them as he strolls down the street.
Where Gambino sees such diversity in styles as a net positive for hip-hop, however, Eminem spends much of Kamikaze attacking the waves of “mumble rappers” for their approach to music. Many of the same names that peacefully coexist with the earlier generations in “Feels Like Summer” are vilified throughout Eminem’s latest album, both with implied barbs and personalized shots depending on how aggressive he’s feeling at the moment.
Technically, it’s one of the most impressive albums of the year; focusing solely on wordplay and rhyme schemes, it’s hard to find a fault with Kamikaze. Still, it’s the content in his lyrics that drags it down into the abyss, positioning Eminem as the grumpy grandfather who’s grown out of touch and refuses to refresh his mindset. Rather than showing the growth and progression that have allowed the Jay-Z’s of his peer group to remain engaging late into their careers, he falls back on the same weary tricks that no longer land with the same intensity, while still attempting to boast his superiority over the rest of the game.
"Do you have any idea how much I hate this choppy flow / Everyone copies though? Probably, no / Get this fuckin' audio out my Audi yo, adios" he raps on "The Ringer," echoing similar sentiments throughout the rest of Kamikaze. Ironically, even as he adopts popular triplet flows here and elsewhere on the album, he sounds uncomfortable and out-of-place, unable to find success in the format he feels is beneath him and his own talents.
Although he charges at artists such as Migos and Lil Pump for their leisurely approach to lyricism, he could learn a thing or two from them about crafting an infectious hook. When he hops into Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” flow on the chorus of “Not Alike,” his performance is deadening and flat-lined, landing awkwardly over Tay Keith’s trapped out production. However, the hook on “Stepping Stones” is even more offensive, abruptly transitioning into screaming guitars and a raspily sung chorus that makes the song essentially unlistenable.
An elder sage named YBN Cordae once rhymed, “Let’s take it back when hip-hop originated, and old niggas said it was whack, they couldn’t take it / And called it a little trend, said it wouldn’t last, now it’s the number one genre as the time passed.” Criticism of a new art form from the creators who came before is nothing new, but time and time again such detractors end up on the wrong side of history as the rising fad becomes a fixture in the overall sound. Recognizing this, Gambino is cleverly bringing the youth into his own concept to enhance his storyline even further, but the increasingly stubborn Eminem is running out of time to do the same.
Even if it’s not for you, that doesn’t mean it’s not for everyone else.
For the riot: JAG - “Black Boy Rise”
The third track from JAG’s new 2700 EP, “Black Boy Rise” brings aggressive electric guitars to the table to ratchet up the rowdiness. TDE’s newest signee Reason along with Dreamville’s own Cozz contribute verses as well, adding their energy for a song that’s sure to get you off your feet and make you want to start an uprising.
For the LED lights: Von Don - “Cleo”
You know those LED-tricked out rooms that pop up every so often on the timeline, where everything from the coffee table to the bed is underlit with color changing lights? Next time you’re in such a room and you get a hold of the aux, press play on “Cleo” to experience the room the way it was meant to be enjoyed. It’s an atmospheric, wavy cut that’s made for the late nights, with Von Don showing an introspective side of himself that pulls you into the production.
For the uncertainty: Ania - “Know Yourself”
Clean, resonating synths create a riveting soundscape on “Know Yourself,” while Ania’s troubled mind tries to make sense of a relationship that’s gone wrong. “Looking at a broken reflection of me / wondering what the fuck done happened to we,” she croons early in the song, singing to her old flame with a chilled yet soothing tone to her voice. It’s much smoother than most of the hard-edged hip-hop you’ll find elsewhere on SLAP, but it’s still no less captivating.