Open Mike Eagle turns an American hero in ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

In 1962, Robert Taylor Homes became the site of the biggest project undertaken by the United States to provide affordable housing to struggling communities. Although it was planned to be a resource to lift families out of poverty, it soon became a place synonymous with poverty and crime. In 2007, the Chicago Housing Authority tore down Robert Taylor Homes, promising to build new complexes. This was a part of a series of demolitions that attempted to try and mark what The New York Times called in 1998 the “end of a ghetto.”

During these moves to gentrify the area, the identities of those living in the projects became lost under a sea of bad press. Nevertheless, a decade later, Michael W. Eagle II — who’s known by his stage name, Open Mike Eagle — resurrects the place his family once called home in his newest album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.

The former Chicago resident raps under a genre that goes by the name of ‘art rap’ — a term he coined himself on his 2010 album Unapologetic Art Rap. It’s a genre that lies at the intersection of rap, spoken word and tender beats. It’s a wave that he and other Los Angeles-based rappers have all contributed towards, to raise the status of rap to that of high art. His previous albums have been packed with puns, crass jokes and well-timed punchlines — all made in a journey to create epic music that convey his experiences as a Black man in the United States.

In Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, the humor that Eagle once brought to his previous albums has been replaced with a profound sense of melancholy. Nevertheless, there is no sacrifice of his signature wit — on the contrary, this album shines with some of the most profound lyricism of Eagle’s career.

Throughout the album, Eagle crafts lyrics that bring life to the people and communities living in the Chicago projects. In the album, he takes on this larger-than-life persona — one as big as this housing complex. In his opening track, “Legendary Iron Hood,” he describes himself as a sleeve-busting superhero that traverses the landscapes of the projects  — regaling tales of his experiences with gangs and his family and the police. What’s beautiful is how Eagle’s entire chorus acts as a double entendre, drawing on the dual meaning of the word “hood” and playing with the image of a kid in ripped clothing to create a superhero fit for the place that was once so familiar to him.

Although he does have a very hopeful, dreamy tone in songs such as “Daydreaming in the Projects” and “Brick Body Complex,” most all of the songs have an unavoidable bleakness. One song in particular is “Breezeway Ritual.” In it, broken beats and off-timed silences shows Eagle’s supreme control of sound. Its opening riffs feel almost nauseating in their eeriness as he opens up about the severity of some of the living conditions. He raps without much wordplay, heightening the disarming mood of the song. The lyrics really hit in the verse where he talks about the role the American government played in all of this. He says, “What if there’s a god but it’s scared of us,” but he then switches “it” to the plural “they’re” in iterations of the line — implying that the government has played god in its decisions regarding the detrimental loss of space for thousands of people.

What’s most heartbreaking is that this song marks the album’s loss of the dreamlike, fantasy space it built in the rising of the album. In the closing track, “My Auntie’s Building,” Eagle gives the most personal retelling of the time he spent in the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes. He talks about the hypocrisy of American policies. He talks about how it’s a government made to seem benevolent, but in actuality, it’s blowing the places people call home to the ground.

What’s so powerful about this album is that it’s very political, but it doesn’t follow in the same vein that other politics-centric bodies of work have in the last two years. It’s an album that shows that 2017 wasn’t the year that the American system became corrupt and unjust — it’s always been this way, even before the Trump administration came into office.

By the end of the album, Eagle isn’t just a superhero built in the likeness of the projects — he is the projects. As the the buildings get torn down, so do parts of him. In this epic of an album, Eagle gives a personal, profound account of his own American landscape.

Contact Annalise Kamegawa at [email protected].