Monday, July 14, 2014

album review: 'dark comedy' by open mike eagle

So, how many of you are absolutely sick of the songs about money, cars, drugs, and hos in hip-hop music?

Look, I'm of the belief that you can talk about anything and everything you want to in music, so long as you do it well, but to say that certain subjects in rap music can wear me out shouldn't be all that surprising. I'm usually a fan of when rappers take established cliches and subvert them or heighten them for parody or satire, like what Clipping and The Roots did on their most recent records, or when they at least can present the cliches impressively with good rapping technique, flow, or poetic language. 

But there's another side to hip-hop outside of gangsta rap: the vaguely defined yet endlessly interesting subgenre of alternative hip-hop that tends to avoid traditional rap cliches and draws upon richer wells for their instrumentation and style, like jazz or soul or reggae or electronica or even country and folk. Originally rising in parallel with alternative rock throughout the late 80s and early 90s, it was unfortunately sidelined and shoved into the underground by the fast rise of the more commercially-viable, hard-edged gangsta rap. Thankfully, with the rise of the internet, more of these acts have risen to prominence and critical acclaim, even if the radio doesn't want to play material that intelligent or political or experimental.

And at the intersection of all three of those adjectives you'd find Open Mike Eagle, an alternative hip-hop artist originally from Chicago before going to LA, he first came to my attention in 2011 with his shockingly intelligent and unsettling record Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes, partially because of his plain-spoken yet attention-grabbing flow, partially because of his dark, yet varied melody-driven production, and partially because there was a certain frank honesty and punch to his wordplay that spoke of some real maturity and knack for telling interesting stories and assuming his audience was smart enough to keep up. He followed it up with 4MNL HSPTL, a much glitchier and darker record that pulled back on the humor and targeted some much more serious subject matter - like the financial crisis, articulated in plain, easy-to-follow language that was rich with references to history and culture that proved that Open Mike Eagle knew exactly what he was talking about. So while this review is almost a month late, I knew I had to sit down at discuss Open Mike Eagle's newest record Dark Comedy, and for this record I took my time and over a dozen listens to really unpack and decipher it - what did I find?

Well, this hit me in a spot I did not expect, and honestly, it's not going to be an album that will resonate with everyone because there are layers to Dark Comedy by Open Mike Eagle in terms of its content and presentation that really got to me. My struggle was pinpointing the exact reasons why it hit me as hard as it did, because this record is probably Open Mike Eagle's most honest and yet dense and interwoven record to date - and it also happens to be his best and currently jumped extremely close to one of my favourite records of the year. Yeah, it's that good.

So let me get my nitpicks out of the way because the content of this album is far more interesting than any trifling complaints I have about production or lyricism. And really, they are trifling because really, the few complaints I do have are minor indeed. The first is more tied to some of the instrumentation - Open Mike Eagle's beats are often fuzz-saturated fusions of glitchy synths, psychedelic haze, and classier instrumentation with unconventional beats, but there are a few moments that got a little too abrasive for my tastes and might have worked better a little more stripped back. 'Idaho' for instance begins with a very minimalist arrangement and then brings in a wobbling thick fuzz that is intended to intensify that feeling of unease when driving alone at night, but I honestly thought the melody could have conveyed the emotion and the fuzz just cluttered the atmosphere. On a similar note, I thought the shrill sample on 'A History of Modern Dance' intensified the inherent awkwardness of the song a little too broadly, especially when a slinkier vibe might have provided a stronger juxtaposition with the lyrical content. And while I really can't point to any lyrics that really exasperated me, there are a few points where songs like 'Thirsty Ego Raps' and 'Informations' feel a little broad to me in their presentation.

Now granted, I get the feeling Open Mike Eagle is aware of that. He himself says 'I'm bad at sarcasm so I work in absurdities', and on first glance, this record seems to fit that statement to a tee, because Open Mike Eagle's offbeat references, half-sing/half-rap delivery, and plain-spoken delivery does reflect a certain modern comedic tone - the sort of dark, vulnerable comedy pushed by acts like Louie C.K. or Lena Dunham on Girls that is sharply critical of society at large and yet just as critical of themselves for being a part of it. And on a stylistic level, the stripped back, muted beats and Open Mike Eagle's straightforward delivery is a damn near perfect fit, the beats always toeing a brittle balance between synthetic grit and organic instrumentation. I loved the guitar balancing the noisy grit on 'Dark Comedy Morning Show', the rattling beat that sounds like bouncing dice in a cup on 'Qualifiers', the ghostly, shimmering production on 'Very Much Money' and 'Jon Lovitz (Fantasy Booking Yarn)', and the lonely piano on 'Big Pretty Bridges' against the slightly distorted vocals. It's all done to accentuate a subtle feeling of being offkilter and off-balance, all intentional to underscore the subject material of this album.

And boy, do we have some meaty material here. Now at first on a very cursory glance, many of the references that Open Mike Eagle makes in terms of pop culture or just plain absurdities might come across as random - I mean, 'Very Much Money' has a running motif tied to Adventure Time of all things, and 'Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)' is a direct tie to House of Cards. But look a little closer and the references ring as much more intense, and much more disquieting. You can quickly tell from his delivery and the underlying content that while there are absurdities in some of his social commentary, they're the sort of absurdities that should make you take a step back and consider the sad implications behind them. For the simplest of examples, take the line from 'Thirsty Ego Raps', "I'm the president of rappers who don't condone date rape". Sure, it's a boast... until you realize that Rocko, Rick Ross, and Future wrote a song last year with plain references to date rape just last year which was so terribly framed and out-of-touch with reality that by making that boast, Open Mike Eagle becomes the exception in hip-hop, not the rule. His boasts aren't about money, but based upon his 'qualifiers' - his wordplay, not his possessions but how he frames and describes himself. And that's not counting all of the songs he writes about technology's ubiquity in modern life - but as a guy who spends forty hours a week working in business intelligence, I can appreciate the truth behind the fact that behind all of that data collection, there still needs to be someone to analyze it and there are so few people and companies who have gotten anywhere close to that point.

This ties back to an element of the framing that I really love about Open Mike Eagle: he places himself as a common man - just like everyone else - and does not distinguish himself by class, but by skill. Which, of course, means that society continuously undervalues him and those like him who do the same. 'Very Much Money' is the plainest example of that, describing his friends with incredible talents and yet who can't get paid if they don't hustle, instead using the Adventure Time motif of the Ice King's crown that grants immortality as a symbol of ego, and then points out the rappers who have worn that crown the longest, likely to their detriment. And that devaluing of intellect and skill and even humanity crops up all over this record: 'Doug Stamper' is a great example of advice that should seem like common sense, but it's nuanced enough to recognize personal context is important and might not apply to everyone - because those who have watched House Of Cards knows that Doug Stamper's character, the adviser, is wracked with very human failings and is ultimately thrown aside when he could not detach and when he starts making mistakes. It's almost to the point where on 'Golden Age Raps', Open Mike Eagle describes exactly how one could find some success in modern rap where art, represented by artists like David Lynch and Alan Moore, has been devalued to pure commercialism, a connection made all the more explicit on 'Deathmate Black'. And that lack of detachment hits again on 'Jon Lovitz (Fantasy Booking Yarn)', where Open Mike Eagle is offered the dream booking from a sleazy promoter... and yet when he can't accept because of a family engagement, he's the one put aside. 

And yet it's the songs 'Idaho' and 'Big Pretty Bridges' that really push this record into something special for me. The former is a story about a hazy midnight drive, Open Mike Eagle at the wheel with his friends all asleep in the car, and his fear that if he careens out of control, he could hurt his friends and never have the chance for parting words. It's a very lonely song and only emphasized all the further with 'Big Pretty Bridges', a song that makes it plain that Open Mike Eagle is trying to build a way through his words to connect with the world around him in a meaningful way, to create something that matters and so that others can attempt to understand the thoughts he expresses. And then the entire record snaps into incredible focus, a man seeking to build meaningful connections, who has seen the industry's transparent contempt for said connections and tries to comment on it and work around it using a universal medium: comedy. By making people laugh, he's bridging a gap, even though there's real truth and on some level a deeper sadness to his words - because there's reality there. And it makes the awkward honesty of this record ring all the more powerfully, like on 'Sadface Penance Raps' and 'A History Of Modern Dance', songs about attempted connections or truths so real the track has to be cut off mid-line. And as a writer myself who always struggles to capture that perfect scene in my own fiction, to perhaps convey some deeper underlying truth, this record really struck something real. 

So yeah, if you haven't checked out Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy... folks, you're missing out, because this is one of the most poignant and powerful records you'll hear this year across the board, and yet with a certain absurdist charm that lowers its barrier to entry, it's one anyone can enjoy. I'm not sure if this album is my favourite hip-hop record of the year thus far, but it's damn, damn close and gets a 9/10 and an extremely high recommendation. Folks, this is smart, genuinely interesting and well-presented hip-hop that never shies away from reality, and on that note, I can't praise it high enough. Go buy this record, so we can continue to praise the rappers and comedians who keep the hecklers away from the punchlines, and make something special along the way.

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