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Open Mike Eagle | another triumph of ghetto engineering

Open Mike Eagle has always taken a grandiose approach to his rap music. From 2010’s Unapologetic Art Rap to 2016’s Hella Personal Film Festival and 2017’s opus Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, the Chicago-bred, LA-based underground broke superhero has often organized his work around a key theme or principle. His latest project, another triumph of ghetto engineering, is perhaps his finest work to date, or at least sets the stage for an epic debate amongst indie rap fans everywhere.

This album has an explicit theme—the hard, often unrewarded work of Black artists everywhere—and one that bubbles beneath the surface and gives the album its brilliant thrust. Namely, this is a celebration of rap, of its beauty and brokenness, of those at the top of the game and those gone too soon to ever reach a peak. This is an album of triumphs and toils, of all that the game has given Mike and the ways in which it has fallen short for him. Mike is probably your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, but more importantly, he’s your favorite rapper’s biggest rap fan.

On the album’s first track, “I bled on the stage at first ave,” Mike sets up the rules and sounds that dominate the record. He employs his now-signature half-rap, half-singing voice, crooning over squealing guitars, distorted drums, and a cacophony of noises. Over the Quelle Chris beat he touches on his failed Comedy Central show, how trying to do good only gets us into trouble, and his rap guiding lights. He spits, “Washed my face, now the drain’s clogged/ Wasn’t low-balled but I played ball/ In retrospect, not a great call.”

The latter line is likely a nod at his canceled comedic sketch show, The New Negroes, which got a big green light from the network before promptly being canceled after a short run. It seems to coincide with the album’s philosophy, which OME explained in a press release: “In the ghetto we never stop toiling! These songs are all fancy ways of saying ‘fuck you’ to people that ignore us and ‘thank you’ to people that care if we live or die!”

Though the album deals with this racial reckoning, Mike stills manages to spend much of the album proclaiming his love for the artform he has dedicated his life to. On “I bled on the stage at first ave” he raps, “Most days it’s the Wu-Tang/ Some days it’s OJ Da Juiceman.” Perhaps it’s the cheeky ironic metaphor that proves the album’s central point when Genius’ website has OJ’s name spelled wrong.

At times, the album finds Mike trying to convince himself of his love for rap as a commercial entity. Yes, he will always be indebted to the spirit and joy that the genre encompasses when removed from the stranglehold of capitalism, but an artist as smart as Mike Eagle squared away this contradiction a long time ago; there’s no success without playing at least a little bit of ball. On “a new rap festival called failing loud,” Mike spits about his time as a teacher over a meandering beat from frequent collaborator Child Actor.

He raps, “My students love me ’cause I’m really patiеnt/ A lot of them was gang affiliated/ They bе DM-in’ me like I’m really famous/ I’m like, kid, if you only knew/ Dependin’ on the love of strangers and the golden rule/ Don’t pay attention, please continue to go to school.” Don’t quit on your dreams, but just know that even the most talented writers on the planet tour 300 days a year to put food on the table.

Despite the sometimes downcast nature of the album, “Dave said these are the liner notes” sound like a rainbow breaking through the cloudy mess. It’s essentially a three minute shoutout to the people Mike has encountered that have helped him in one way another. They’re mostly peers, and it’s a reminder that above all, there’s no respect quite like those of people in your line of work. Aside from bag fulls of money, validation comes from a tip of the cap from someone you work alongside, and “Dave said” finds Mike shouting out mentors, mentees, and everything in between. It’s a beautiful moment on an album that time and again proves why rap is quite simply the best thing on Earth.

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