Open Mike Eagle’s Comic-Book Heroism

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream guides you through the projects with hope.

The last time I met Open Mike Eagle was at Palisades in Brooklyn, where he booked me for a benefit alongside Chris Gethard and Princess Nokia. Here was the opportunity to perform alongside three artists I enjoy across comedy and rap, an intersection I was familiar with from my time in Das Racist. Listening to his new album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, his work struck me differently: While a few bars made me laugh, it lives in a world that isn’t always funny or fun. It lives in storytelling and art, where rap first originated. I have no problem deconstructing bars in rap music, but Brick Body Kids Still Daydream ended up being far denser than the work I’m accustomed to, in not just the bars, but in its bird’s-eye view of surviving in an inner-city rife with systemic oppression, and of survival as the first and foremost of a person’s daily goals. In fact, I almost bailed on writing this review because I’m very lazy and often turn to rap to turn up, not tune in.

Escapism’s a funny thing. There’s escapism by way of turn-up music about abusing women from Soundcloud rappers—I don’t recommend this method—and there’s diving into what it is one comes from, and what it is one wants to make of it in order to create a whole other world. Working-class kids aren’t strangers to escapism, but some of us prefer to escape within our realities, creating universes that draw on what feels familiar to create what we deem a more hopeful vision of what we know.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a conceptual album about the now-extinct Chicago housing projects Robert Taylor Homes. When I listen, I think of Robert Moses, and how Moses pushed architecture and city planning to keep people of color down in New York City’s projects. Here, Open Mike isn’t turning the projects into poverty tourism for reductive millennials. Instead, he’s bringing people to his doorstep, giving his home a human voice (a superhuman voice, even—more on that part later). You can almost smell the Adobo and blunts emanating from the apartment doors nearby and lingering in the hallways. (Do projects in Chicago smell like Goya? They do in New York.)

For this record, Mike created a comic book–style superhero named Iron Hood, who guides you through these projects with hope. Iron Hood is a heroic rapper who, in 2017, feels more akin to rappers like Rammellzee from long before the present moment. I ain’t going to lie: As much as I hated for their white-devil sophistry, I needed their help to decode the comic-book allusions Mike laid out on the first track alone. The hyper-specific referentialism felt familiar—it reminded me of watching The Get Down and feeling nostalgic for train commutes, comic books, and hands stained with spray paint. Most of all, the conflict between wanting to leave your hood and wanting to remain to make it better felt closely familiar.

The album’s production serves the stories it tells—it isn’t the kind where someone who doesn’t like rap lyrics will proclaim, “I love the beat!” The beats sound like they were prepared in order to support the weight of Mike’s lyrics’ meanings. If there’s a completion rate—how long it takes for someone to listen to a song before streaming platforms count it as a full play—when a rapper’s first listening to a beat, it’s probably quicker than Spotify’s 90-second rule. Rappers are curators, and the producers here, a list of several underground familiars and up-and-comers including Exile, Illingsworth, Andrew Broder, Elos, Toylight, DJ Nobody, Kenny Segal, Caleb Stone, Lo-Phi, and Has-Lo, prove that. Some of the production is reminiscent of MF Doom, especially on the guitar-laden loop of “TLDR (Smithing),” and Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics on that song are few among recent to match MF Doom’s too, as on thoughtful, borderline-humorous lines like:

Need somewhere to bark, start with local governments

Spar with Republicans, the stars won’t be punishing

You fool, your phone’s the new ark of the covenant

And God spoke to you in a bar called Mulligan’s

I write this from a pub named Mullane’s, but close enough. I believe Mike when he raps that he’s “from a line of ghetto superheroes”—not to be confused with Doom’s famous supervillain character, maybe because we need more hope now. “Brick Body Complex” juxtaposes hardbody rhymes with reflective hooks that bring the chaos of systemically neglected inner-city living to a sonic palette. This is where moms smoking something in basements are juxtaposed against graduation lunches, and nothing about it seems exoticized—as it shouldn’t. (Some people can’t imagine those with addictions creating those with education.)

On “Hymnal,” Sammus stops by to drop one of the best feature verses in recent memory. It’s hard to consistently end a bar on the same rhyme, but to do it with narrative clarity is even more impressive. Elsewhere, on “95 Radio,” Open Mike Eagle outlines his emotions directly and, for those less inclined toward deconstructionism, in part by referencing other musicians’ work:

Hard to express when the world is listening

Hard when you’re sure that the world is not

In between PM Dawn and Sun Ra

Why do we create art? Why do we rhyme? Who’s listening? Are they? Does it matter that they are? Is this our therapy? When he raps, “Been woke so long, I might need to take a nap” Mike isn’t beating you over the head with his politics. He’s not preaching about social justice, or even serving the morals up on a platter for you. His home isn’t a soapbox, but a project building. He’s just telling his story and hoping you listen. I’m glad I did, because I learned how mastering your craft (something I never cared to do) and creating a cohesive, consistent, conceptual album can help you use your platform for an actual message, rather than painted-on, narcissistic “woke” flourishes. Young emcees: I hope you’re able to hear that when you listen, too.

Himanshu Suri is an accidental rapper from Queens, NY. You may know him as “the chubby dude from Das Racist” or “the chubby dude from Swet Shop Boys” or “Heems.” One time he almost had a sitcom on Fox.