Open Mike Eagle continues to separate himself from the pack as a fascinating figure in hip hop.
Open Mike Eagle’s sixth album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, opens with the low-key preamble “Legendary Iron Hood,” a slow burning distillation of the MC’s singular appeal. Though he’s rhyming brash claims and toying with superhero allusions to establish himself as the central figure of the upcoming tracks, he delivers his lyrics with a conversational brio that undercuts the braggadocio. “Started walking, now my legs in perpetual motion/ Can’t stop, can’t stop, but I’m not just boasting/ I had to ’cause home’s overrun by roaches.” At his core, Open Mike Eagle is a regular cat from humble beginnings, a man whose difficult past colors every element of his present.
There’s a casually Afro-futurist bent to the bulk of the album, utilizing the shorthand of science fiction and comic books to express the escapism necessary to cope with poverty, depression and other real world obstacles that feel just as pernicious as the average supervillain. If Mike possesses any superpowers of his own, they’re his laconic wit and impressive ability to alter flows, tones and attitudes while never sounding like he’s doing anything but talking directly to you in a quiet room. Other rappers in this alternative space who try for the work-a-day relatability of “regular guy rap” tend to be boring as hell. In their pursuit of false modesty, they disappear into the crowd. But Mike’s an average guy with an above-average gift for vocal presence and an undeniable charisma.
On “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Doesn’t Hurt)”, an ode to obfuscating pain, Mike raps “I don’t take shit personal, I don’t get jealous/ You can leave my name off, you can misspell it.” That under-the-radar sense of cool is in concert with the album’s production courtesy of soulful beatmakers like Exile and Has-Lo who provide subtle bangers as blank canvases for Mike to fill up like spiral notebooks with musings and self-deprecating observations. Even a track like “Brick Body Complex,” whose Southern rap-inflected instrumental from Caleb Stone raises the tempo and intensity far above its brethren, drips of antithetical swagger. When the skittering trap drums hit, the song sounds like it’ll be a radical departure from the charming somnambulism of the LP, then Mike raps, “Don’t call me nigga or rapper/ My motherfucking name is Michael Eagle, I’m sovereign,” prematurely silencing anyone anticipating a mid-album metamorphosis into rap radio cosplay.
It’s hard to argue with Mike’s indignant stance in that moment, coming as it does at the outset of a song conflating the inner city creative’s psychology with urban architecture. The literalization of the reflexive relationship between young black men and the buildings that birth them might prove too ponderous on a set of songs less characterized by self-effacing cleverness and sotto voiced declarations of hard fought confidence. He’s rhyming about themes and motifs that aren’t remotely new to hip hop, but he dispenses his perspective on these well-worn issues with a unique bent. Plenty of rap songs dramatize the complex nature of religion in black families, but few imbue the subject with the haunting existential dread Mike displays on “Breezeway Ritual,” a track that posits a God so afraid of his creation he watches in abject horror as they destroy themselves with the tools he’s left them.
Taken as a whole, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream might not be the most ambitious or genre changing release of the year. It’s an easy album to overlook, given the astonishing surplus of new rap that audiences get every week. But with songs as touching as “Daydreaming In The Projects” and as sharply focused as “TLDR (Smithing),” Open Mike Eagle continues to separate himself from the pack as a fascinating figure in hip hop, one whose sense of humor and abundance of heart marks him a compelling voice to follow amidst the din of SoundCloud pretenders.