“I got a high IQ and a low credit score,” confessed Project Blowed stalwart Open Mike Eagle on 2011’s audacious Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes. That’s the LA-via-Chicago rapper/Secret Skin podcast host’s story and he’s sticking to it five albums later, with the credo “been woke so long I might need to take a nap” poking out of the breathless verses and snake-charming guitar of the new “TLDR (Smithing)”. A standout on his sixth album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, the track rewrites Pulp’s “Common People” in laymen’s terms: “If you was rich and about to be broke, I can coach you/ Cuz I can show you how to kill a roach with a boat shoe.”
That is, the singer-rapper who just had a prospective stand-up series green lit for Comedy Central is still the “master of the sloppy arts” (in “Hymnal”, where he also disavows any rumors that he’s in Evanescence) and claims to “write in all of my fantasies and die in all of my dreams” (in “[How Could Anybody] Feel at Home”, whose distant exotica is what passes for a hook on this subtler outing). The pride of Mello Music Group is living up to his label’s name by forgoing the twitchy electronics of Natural Causes and the more forthright sonics of last year’s great Paul White collab, Hella Personal Film Festival, with liminal sounds slinking from one backdrop to the next beneath a flow that never breaks a conversational pitch. This approach doesn’t necessarily limit the music, but it certainly takes longer for Daydream to sink in. And don’t expect to ever be able to match its esoteric song titles to their tunes by memory.
One of Eagle’s more consistently engaging outings, this elegy for the since-demolished Robert Taylor Homes projects the 36-year-old rapper grew up in isn’t necessarily one of his most ear-catching records. More than his other albums, it’s consumed with his thoughts, possibly even a bit smothered; it cries out for some showing to break up all the telling. The murmured musical patchwork never quite breaks for a showstopper like 2016’s astonishing “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)” either. Not when the first single, the muted bedroom-pop of “95 radios”, appropriately boasts about placing him in lineage “in between PM Dawn and Sun Ra” at a time when every rapper from lovelorn Kevin Abstract to frightening alleged abuser XXXTentacion is trying their hand at early Anticon-styled lo-fi indie-rock.
But Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is worth getting to know once you peel back some layers. The subtle deployment of the Middle Eastern synth-flute from De La Soul’s “Ego Tripping Pt. 2” on the lead “Legendary Iron Hood” is a treat, as are the side-of-mouth delivery and abrasive samples on “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt)” that break away from Eagle’s usual singsong style while retaining its effortless flow. That flow is sharpest and most poignant on the nonstop “Happy Wasteland Day”, which evokes the constancy of the racism Eagle painstakingly details in a chorus that alternates “Can we get one day they don’t try us” and “Can we get one day without violence.” The sarcastic sadness of the surrounding verses recalls Heems’ soul-shattering “Flag Shopping” as Eagle sighs, “It’s normal, it’s normal, it’s normal now” and scrunches up his tonsils like Danny Brown to ask the void, “Zombie sheriffs are trying to lynch us/ Guess I’ll call up my congressman.” Per usual, he has so many sobering things to say about oppression that the song fades out with him still rapping.
Eagle is more of an astute rapper than one who goes for the jugular, which holds back the back half of his much-acclaimed 2014 Dark Comedy, and probably significantly dampers the impact of this new album, but you’re constantly rooting for him, even when the video for “Brick Body Complex” is a bit too stoic and slow to pull off its riotous concept of playing an anti-gentrification superhero named Iron Hood, or when he inexplicably flips “unique snowflakes” into “ordinary snowballs.” But he’s more thoughtful than Common ever was, and few artists of any genre can claim to have such a rich inner dialogue. Should he begin using his chest voice, though, it will become impossible to not listen to the man.
Essential Tracks: “Happy Wasteland Day”, “TLDR (Smithing)”, and “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt)”