Over the past decade, underground rapper Open Mike Eagle has quietly released some of the best hip-hop albums, but none have lived up to the moniker “Open Mike” Eagle has bestowed upon himself. With storytelling rivaled only by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, a well of near-unlimited pop culture references and humor that is equal parts sharp and sentimental, there has always been one thing missing from his records: What is Michael Eagle feeling right now? For his newest release, the answer is direct — so direct that listeners don’t need to look further than the title, Anime, Trauma and Divorce, to understand that Eagle is in pain, reconciling and, most importantly, revealing himself.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce is layered in dreamy, woozy production that floats through Eagle’s recent past; the results show Eagle fighting a limbo between regrets, personal failures and attempts to better himself. When Eagle references his divorce, there are no bitter feelings aimed at his ex. It is refreshing to hear a masculine perspective take a methodical, loving approach to failed relationships; each attempt at cynicism is also the bubbling frustration of losing control of life and love.
The opening track, “Death Parade,” plunges into how the cycle of trauma is reinstated in every generation. A clever use of pronouns in the lyrics helps generalize trauma, turning it into a shared experience that weighs upon all humans. Eagle’s smooth and tame chorus acts as hindsight to the contrasting visceral, punchy verses that lay blame on himself and his ancestor.
Here’s when Eagle’s most impressive technical rapping skill comes into focus: the ability to slightly modify his voice to fit the mood of each song. The following song, “Headass,” has Eagle falling into a nasally, repetitive hook, chanting “Ass I’m a head, head,” which would be grating if it didn’t come from such a genuine place of mental scarring and constantly beating himself up over past mistakes.
Other songs such as “The Black Mirror Episode,” which details how the aforementioned Netflix show catalyzed the downfall of his marriage, shifts into a wailing, hysterical flow. The lyrics capture the fragility of domestic life, and the event itself seems so benign at first glance that the vulnerability Eagle approaches the song with gushes through the veneer of self-humiliation.
The delicate approach Eagle pays to his stories pulls listeners closer and closer until ears are pressed against stereo speakers. There is no way to understand the actual truth, but instead, it’s honesty that drapes every song and spills through every bar. There is only Eagle’s perspective, but he doesn’t ever mislead or obfuscate his emotions. It’s raw, confused, lived in and authentic.
Eagle’s family troubles are compounded by the fact that his career has hit major turbulence with his Comedy Central show, “The New Negroes,” getting canceled after just one season. Failure is a ballooning theme throughout the record, and it finally pops on “Everything Ends Last Year,” a minimalist ballad with each verse ending in one of the most relatable lines of the year: “It’s October and I’m tired.” The ghost of optimism echoes throughout the album; negativity is pushed toward the center as Open Mike Eagle’s efforts to create a show that was supposed to change television forever is now no more than a blink in time.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce also showcases the talents of a new rapper, Lil A$e, or more commonly known as Asa Eagle, the son of Open Mike. Through the torment and heaviness Eagle approaches the record with, his son always acts as the light that keeps him going. On “Asa’s Bop” and “Fifteen Twenty Feet Ocean Nah,” the latter featuring Asa keeping up with his father’s flow, the love between them seeps through, binding the album together in an imperviously emotional duet between father and son. It’s this strength that keeps Mike Eagle’s openness a virtue, his audience having the privilege to listen to someone fight their way through to the other side of the tunnel.