The word ‘art’ is now commonly used as a prefix that can be plastered before genres such as pop, rock and punk to christen subsidiaries of these styles as favouring avant-gardisms, eccentricities and experimentation over simple, unchallenging entertainment. Although I personally take issue with the implication in the terms ‘art pop’, ‘art rock’ and ‘art punk’ that the more popular strands of pop, rock and punk are not artful — after all, just because a piece of art is more comprehensive in its appeal, or more superficial in its faculty of relaying a message or understanding of aesthetic sensibility, does not make it any less a piece of art — they can nevertheless be useful in pinpointing the trends that these styles aim to react to and fight back against. With the terms ‘art pop’ and ‘art rock’ denoting derivatives of their mother genres that strive to make artistic statements over merely providing mindless, mainstream entertainment, whilst ‘art punk’ is typified by an appropriation of more technical and progressive principles compared to the overly-simplified song structures and compositional constructs of pure punk, ‘art rap’, therefore, could be assumed to adopt more ambitious concepts in its text than the braggadocio of more popular forms of hip hop. Of course, this is my personal and rather succinct interpretation of the label, as, despite the fact that there have long-since existed MCs who strive to incorporate more demanding and enterprising conceptual arcs into their lyricism, the phrase ‘art rap’ is only beginning to just catch on, courtesy of the ever-increasing underground success of the man who supposedly first coined the term, Michael W. Eagle II, whose first full-length release under his stage name of Open Mike Eagle bore the bold name Unapologetic Art Rap.
Using Open Mike Eagle’s back-catalogue as a point of reference for understanding the ‘art rap’ label shines a more vivid light on the term, with the rapper employing an overtly comedic tone to his lyrics, most notably on his most celebrated album Dark Comedy, that often sought to subvert or deconstruct tropes common within other forms of hip hop, particularly those of a morally repugnant nature, with the MC declaring himself “the president of the rappers who don’t condone date rape” on his song Thirsty Ego Raps. In this sense, despite blatantly deriding themes recurrent in more mainstream factions of rap music, Eagle’s witticisms also seemed to be tailored towards these audiences to an extent, as there is definitely required a certain amount of knowledge regarding the likes of Kanye West or Rick Ross to completely catch onto his quips against them. Then again, in a similar vein to the likes of milo, Open Mike Eagle tends to rattle through esoteric reference after esoteric reference, whether these relate to comics, cartoons, video games, professional wrestling, rock music, phone apps or whatever else he should just so happen to choose to convey his thoughts to the listener in as cryptic a fashion as possible. That’s not to say that understanding Eagle’s conceptual arcs is ever particularly difficult, however. Whilst picking apart specifics may prove arduous, given just how many cultural allusions tend to flood his lyrics, the broader themes of his records are always readily apparent in the text, and this is no different for his latest album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Politics, and particularly its socioeconomic connotations, have often concerned Open Mike Eagle in the past, but never quite to this extent, or with quite this much precision, with Brick Body Kids Still Daydream being inspired by a housing project on the South Side of Chicago called Robert Taylor Homes, which was demolished a decade ago, but with the MC now envisaging brick-bodied, teenage titans rising from the rubble to tell the tale of those who inhabited these now destroyed, drab high-rises. Musically, Open Mike Eagle’s latest record is similarly stark and glitchy to his previous undertakings, but in a slightly smoother and more muted manner, seemingly as an attempt to truly pull out the emotions in the semi-rapped, semi-sung performances that dominate Brick Body Kids Still Daydream more than any other previous album of the rapper’s. Whilst as unwaveringly witty and thoroughly focussed as many of the rapper’s previous undertakings, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream seems to take the refinement of Open Mike Eagle’s heartbreaking hilarity to entirely new heights, making for what is perhaps his most conceptually potent and musically striking release to date.
Although anthropomorphising an entire public housing project stands as an exceptionally abstract concept for a hip hop album, even by Open Mike Eagle’s standards, the strength of the conceptual arc of Brick Body Kids Still Daydream arises from its self-contained stories of the comic book heroes and professional wrestlers that have long since graced the MC’s lyrics, whom Eagle now idolises in a wholly new context, as he visualises his younger self and his peers, bound by both morals and mortar, taking a stand to defend the concrete that contains their life stories. This worship of shonen superheroes is ingrained within the psyche of a young Michael Eagle long before he finds himself fighting in the face of gentrification and public indifference, with the album’s opening song, Legendary Iron Hood, seeing the rapper’s younger self invent a comic book hero alter ego called Iron Hood, with aspirations of growing stronger to protect his brother Charles after witnessing him being hurt by an unnamed child during a game of pretend. Despite this newfound semblance of strength Eagle finds in his imagined superhero status, he later acknowledges the internal conflict that comes with attempting to prop up this veneer of power on the track No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt). Across this song, the MC laments the societal stigma against boys that prevents him from being open about his emotions, which is cleverly wrapped up in a pro wrestling metaphor that subverts the act of ‘selling’ — overemphasising expressions of pain as to exaggerate the power of one’s opponent in order to make the stakes of a match seem higher than they are in reality — with Eagle refusing to show cracks in his sturdy physical and mental demeanour by masking any pain or emotional weakness. Yet, despite the gravity of this issue, the rapper nevertheless finds time to throw in hilarious one-liners, such as during the end of the second verse, wherein he addresses those who may doubt the lengths he goes to in order to protect his masculine pride by saying that he “had an asthma attack during the last bar”. Regardless of the internal conflict that it causes, however, Eagle finds a use for his façade of hardiness, with his visions of being a courageous colossus solidifying, quite literally, on Brick Body Complex, as Iron Hood, the “ghetto superhero”, builds himself up to the height of a 16-storey building, becoming a brick-bodied behemoth who exists to defend the legacy of the families who inhabit the Robert Taylor projects. Unfortunately, however, in spite of its imagery of personified public housing projects and high-rise leviathans fighting the bureaucrats who plan to destroy these buildings, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is nevertheless grounded in the gruelling reality faced by those who were displaced by the demolition of Robert Taylor Homes — one third of whom remain unaccounted for to this day — with Iron Hood losing to the enemy, leaving his family and friends scattered, as is described in chillingly upfront terms on the record’s closing cut, My Auntie’s Building. Yet, even though the heroic guardian of Robert Taylor Homes lost the battle, the war arguably still continues, with Open Mike Eagle being successful in his desire to tell the story of the projects that housed his family and his eager imagination as a youth, with his unhindered honesty working to draw the listener even further into his heartrending story of state sanctions prevailing over the force of even a child’s passion and creative power. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, however, still stands strong as a triumph of self-contained storytelling in hip hop, with Open Mike Eagle presenting his tale of youthful heroes defending their stamping ground with an astute and level-headed understanding of consequence and conflict. Indeed, the potency of the album’s narrative arises from the way in which the rapper presents the tale of Iron Hood like that of any other comic book hero, which makes the mercilessly grim conclusion to this story all the more dramatic and jarring, with the trope of the good guys always overcoming evil being completely crushed and buried under 16-stories’ worth of rubble.
Viewing the musical side to Brick Body Kids Still Daydream as largely separate from Open Mike Eagle’s storytelling across the album is likely a mistake, as peeling back the layers of the record’s narrative reveals just how much the overall tone of many of these instrumentals plays into the subject matter of each specific song. Generally speaking, the project’s sonic palette balances the glitchy quality often associated with Eagle’s music with a sleeker and more refined style that shares a lot in common with jazz rap, as is perhaps best exemplified by the slick guitar licks of Legendary Iron Hood that come courtesy of alt-rock eccentrics They Might Be Giants, which pair particularly well against the smoky piano incidentals and the fluttering vibrato of the MC’s vocal delivery. Given how diverse the pool of producers employed on the album is, with 10 DJs showing up over the course of 12 tracks, the fact that Brick Body Kids Still Daydream remains so consistent in its balance of glitchiness and sleekness is truly impressive, with each cut on the record, regardless of how it may differ in tone from those surrounding it in the tracklisting, sounding suited only to this album and none other in Open Mike Eagle’s discography. When it comes to looking at Brick Body Kids Still Daydream on a song-by-song basis, however, the tone of each track seems to be expressly tailored to suit the subject matter of the rapper’s storytelling and the tone of his delivery, to the point that these beats essentially play into the album’s narrative, as if scoring the original soundtrack for the feature-length film adaptation of Iron Hood’s story. Brick Body Complex, for instance, which portrays Eagle at his most bitter and steadfast across the entire record, is bolstered by the most hard-hitting instrumental in the tracklisting, which fuses jittery synth tones with a trap-tinged rhythm section, comprised of some clacking, skittish percussion and tense, growling bass. In a very different fashion, the following track, TLDR (Smithing), with its cycling guitar line and jumpy drum loop, brandishes perhaps the glitchiest beat on the album, as if harking back to Eagle’s Dark Comedy days, given that the MC’s lyrics across this track amount to his most amusing and absurd across the entire record, with lines like, “Been woke so long I might need to take a nap” amounting to instant stand-outs upon first listen. With the cascades of tumbling noise on My Auntie’s Building being directly referenced in Eagle’s lyrics (“That’s the sound of them tearing my body down to the ground”), it would definitely seem as if the instrumentals across Brick Body Kids Still Daydream were handpicked to suit the artist’s narrative and, in this sense, they are unequivocally effective and arresting. However, this shouldn’t detract from the fact that, when removed from the context of the album’s thematic arc, the music across Brick Body Kids Still Daydream can be rather upfront in its sonic appeal, as Eagle comes through with no end of sticky, melodically dense refrains, with (How Could Anybody) Feel At Home and Hymnal being the first pair of examples that jump instantly to mind, not to mention the gorgeous vocal textures from Happy Wasteland Day. Meanwhile, whether it be the backdrop of the buzzing, 8-bit-sounding synth arpeggios that play against the dulcet horns of Daydreaming In The Projects, or the sparkling, sweet-sounding chimes and almost ambient atmosphere of 95 Radios, the instrumental timbre of Brick Body Kids Still Daydream covers a great deal of territory sonically speaking, but each endeavour is equally as successful as the last in capturing the striking balance of skittishness and slickness that binds the entire album together.
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream could be said to mark a milestone in Open Mike Eagle’s career, in that it stands as the first album of his wherein his caustic wit and sharp sense of humour, although still very much present, take a backseat when it comes to his narrative storytelling, with the sociopolitical text of his lyrics being considerably more forthright. When taking into account the fact that, on previous endeavours, issues of politics were yet to concern the artist to this degree, let alone with this specificity, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream seems to be the first of its kind in Eagle’s back-catalogue, yet he handles this subject with the same contextual and thematic substance of his more comedic undertakings. Even still, much of the potency of Eagle’s newest record arises from the framing of his heroic tale, with no project of his previously being so thorough in his descriptions of the emotional consequences of its key themes. Indeed, looking at the bigger picture of Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, there exists a complete, self-contained narrative across its 12 tracks, including a fleshed-out character arc of a young Michael Eagle, that could surely be deciphered and transcribed into comic book or light novel format. For these reasons, and especially when taking into account just how cogent the production is in reinforcing the tone of each track, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream stands as what is very likely Open Mike Eagle’s most refined, well-rounded and fully realised project thus far in his career, both in terms of the strength of its thematic thread and the consistency of its timbre.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10