Monday, September 18, 2017

album review: 'brick body kids still daydream' by open mike eagle

Okay, it's been a tagline across many of my hip-hop reviews this year that hip-hop hasn't really had a strong 2017... and yeah, I think that's mostly true, but I don't want to focus on that this time around, because like it or not, there has been good to even great rap music that's been released. I've already talked plenty of times at length about Run The Jewels who started off the year, but between the mainstream dominance of Kendrick, the stronger-than-expected returns from Jay-Z and Tyler, The Creator, a solid sophomore follow-up from Joey Bada$$, and potent underground success from Uncommon Nasa, Quelle Chris and Milo, there have been albums worth talking about.

And yet this is one that I was most excited about, falling in the last category of underground heavyweights aiming to drop the cerebral and experimental project that gets all the hip-hop heads talking... although what I've found amusing is not only is Open Mike Eagle affiliated with all of the underground acts I just mentioned, he's also building a pretty impressive bit of traction himself off of well-deserved critical acclaim and a cult following. I may have missed A Special Episode Of as an EP, but I loved Dark Comedy in 2014 and his collaboration with producer Paul White - who later went on to unleash madness with Danny Brown on Atrocity Exhibition - with Hella Personal Film Festival is just as remarkable to this day. But Brick Body Kids Still Daydream was looking to be different: a concept record exploring the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project in the south side of Chicago that was torn down in the faceless rush of gentrification and yet was never rebuilt. Immediately my mind went to The Hope Six Demolition Project, a potent if slightly directionless project from PJ Harvey last year that touched on similar themes, but given Open Mike Eagle's penchant for storytelling and empathy, this seemed like it would cut far deeper. In other words, you can bet this was a top priority for me to review, so what did I find on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream?

So let me say this right out of the gate: this is one of the best records of the year, period, but in comparison to other Open Mike Eagle albums, this is probably one of the more difficult listens. Not in terms of production, which is probably his most successful synthesis of weird, slightly jazz-inflected melodies with buzzier grit and distortion yet, or in terms of content or bars, because again, Open Mike Eagle has been cultivating a refreshingly direct style even despite his carefully interwoven pop culture references, dry wit, and real eye for detail. No, what makes this record harrowing is the content and especially the thematic arc of this record, with the sort of go-for-broke final track that'll remain one of the most haunting and powerful moments you'll hear all year, a punch that so many other artists would have pulled but Open Mike Eagle doesn't.

Now before we get to that and why that final song hits so damn hard, we should talk about Open Mike Eagle himself - and look, I'm not going to deny he's a bit of a tricky rapper to embrace immediately, with his soft-spoken quick flow and tight multisyllabic rhymes and the subtle notes of expressive emotion that creeps into his delivery, and that's not even touching on the fact many of the emotions he likes to explore across this project are smaller feelings of discomfort that creep through his psyche which could potentially lead to awkwardness... but if they never do, it never feels stilted or incompetent. And that's because this might feature some of his most melodic and smooth flows to date, smoothed over and multi-tracked efficiently in order to cultivate not only strong hooks but a downbeat sense of 90s-inspired normality, reflecting a neighborhood with history and character and the people who would live to see the earth shift underneath it. And while Open Mike Eagle does embody a few different characters on this record to powerful effect, he also lets his guest stars step up amazingly well, with Has-Lo's layered melancholy on '95 Radios' and Sammus' star-making performance with the final verse 'Hymnal' - seriously, she's incredible here.

But you could make an argument that another character in this story is the music and production itself, where Open Mike Eagle sheds his usual collage of glitchy samples for a very different set of beats and melodies. Right from 'Legendary Iron Hood' the cymbal tone is fuller, the bass is dustier, the wheedling guitars courtesy of They Might Be Giants guitarist Dan Miller accent the melodic swell from Exile, it's a tune that wouldn't feel out of place in the 90s but slight more rounded and smoothed through the passage of memory while still maintaining its melodic core. But even after that establishing moment, the keening keyboards of '(How could Anybody) Feel At Home' against the sparse rattle of percussion subtly accents how something is very much amiss, and as the record progresses the bass thickens, the melodies start to feel a little more barren and washed out, the crack of hi-hats creep in to reflect something a little more brittle and ominous. Sure, you get moments of brightness like the horns and gentle foundation of guitar and drums on 'Happy Wasteland Day', or the swell of buzzy chiptune synth and horns on the phenomenal hook of 'Daydreaming In The Projects', or the guitar that anchors the oddly fidgeting bass bounce of 'TLDR (Smithing)', but followed by the minor warping tones of 'Brick Body Complex' and razor sharp trap beat, you can tell something dire or bleak is lurking ahead. Really, the only tunes I think that suffer in this buildup are the blubbery build of 'Breezeway Ritual' or the hollowed out, lo-fi vocal filters on 'Wedding Ghosts', before things thankfully correct with the rubbery beat and faint twinkles of '95 Radios'. But again, it's all building to that final track, warping choppy chunks of noise and distortion that begins piling against one of the glitchiest beats of Open Mike Eagle's career, a desperate industrial hellscape that only needs just over two minutes to create the sort of song that will play in your nightmares.

Now on the surface that's a weird choice, to end your record with by far your darkest song and unquestionably a downbeat note - and yet to explain why its so damn effective, we need to talk about the content. I initially made the statement that this record was focused more on gentrification of the Robert Taylor Homes project in Chicago, and yet that's not quite true - it's darker and considerably more oppressive to fit with the downbeat, almost monochromatic production, especially in comparison to previous records. And that's because the larger story of this record is trauma, one that comes when an uncaring system rips your home out from underneath you for absolutely no discernible reason. And Open Mike Eagle explores this from a variety of angles, from the subtle moments of uncertainty that comes when an place you'd always use to go is closed when it shouldn't be, to speaking as the black men expected to hold as implacable and imposing in the face of strife... only then to be painted as villains - there's a reason why he's playing the role of Juggernaut from the X-Men on 'Legendary Iron Hood', or talking about how despite the injury he's not letting any pain through on the intentionally awkward lo-fi clank of 'No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Doesn't Hurt)'. But what's telling is that it's not an immediate sharp pain but a grinding endurance test, especially in the face of an administration now that Open Mike Eagle aptly describes as zombies and garbage that society is trying to tell him is normal... and yet with a community behind him he does feel strength in the face of that fear, especially as 'Daydreaming In The Projects' shows him how trivial some minor arguments can really be. But again, that's a moment of respite allowed because he's got that place of stability, and in the next song he embodies those buildings and the deeply rooted history they hold... but they are roots that can be severed. 'TLDR (Smithing)' hits on two cutting points, one that truthful hip-hop observations can be lost in a trivializing blur where the real pain is missed, and the other is that it can very well happen to anyone. That projection of strength and community - necessary in a world where a cop can profess malicious intent to kill a black man, plant a gun on him, and then get off scot-free - it can intimidate those who have never needed to show it, and it leads to folks falling in line or looking away...

Until it's too late. Because coupled with the thunderous weight of destructive wrecking balls tearing into that home comes its inevitability, both through the passage of time and a system entrenched to trigger this trauma, with little concern to those caught in its blast radius. It's why the closing track 'My Auntie's Building' hits with terrifying impact, not just because Open Mike Eagle once again speaks on the hook from the perspective of an old building being torn down, but also from a man who lived there and witnessed the gross injustice of its demolition - it's never the time shares torn down in the relentless pursuit of profit or convenience, it's the projects, and what's all the more maddening is that even now there's nothing there but an undeveloped empty lot, drawing parallels to the senselessness of death and the ruining of homes in the face of a system that will bulldoze over everything in its way, seemingly for no deeper purpose. And here's the truly haunting choice: that's how Open Mike Eagle ends the record. You want a message of hope, you want some chance that things are going to recover, you want even a consideration that something can be restored or changed, you don't get any of it - because this sort of trauma rarely gives those caught its wake an easy answer - or even an answer at all.

In other words, I can predict some audiences who might have been taken in by some of Open Mike Eagle's wit and empathetic power and off-kilter production choices being alienated or thrown by this record. Despite being his most melodically accessible, despite hooks that are stronger than ever, despite his most consistent production and bars that are sharper than ever and even a few songs that take a turn for the braggadocious that show he's got a knack for inventive punchlines with real depth, that ending will either galvanize or terrify an audience... probably a little of both, to be honest. But for me... the last time I got anywhere close to this sort of punch off a hip-hop record was 'Mortal Man' from To Pimp A Butterfly, and while that record cut deeper in moments, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is the piledriver off the top rope that you'll end up feeling a lot longer. Solid 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, and while this might not be an easy listen, it is an essential one. Buy this - you won't regret it.

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