Open Mike Eagle has always lent his work a certain economic gravitas, regarding both his personal life and the inequalities that continually plague America — particularly black Americans and people of color. Indie rap money isn’t what it used to be, and even then, it wasn’t mainstream rap money.
Eagle’s at the highest point of his career, fresh off a year-long tour following the release of his most acclaimed album to date, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. It’s a marvelous record, an ode to the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago that were demolished and erased from the public consciousness. Eagle spends the record trying to rediscover the project that once housed his aunt. But on his latest EP, What Happens When I Try to Relax, he’s already moved past this triumph: “I made an audio mural you can walk through/ About my auntie I don’t even talk to,” he raps on highlight “Southside Eagle (93 Bulls).”
For Mike, the more things change the more they stay the same. He’s more visible than he’s ever been, a genuine voice in the indie rap world, and yet, these are still recession raps, with Eagle spinning lines about being in the red and forgetting to eat after shows because he’s too busy selling his own T-shirts. Open Mike Eagle has reached the ceiling of indie rap, and on What Happens When I Try to Relax, he wonders what’s next.
“I’m a national and international rapper and I’m never typically a part of conversations about rap music,” Eagle explains over lunch and smoothies at Simply Wholesome in South Los Angeles. “…This isn’t the truth, but this is how I feel: Whenever Kendrick [Lamar] or J. Cole, them two specifically, put something out, I feel like it erases my existence and I damn near have to justify my existence over again because the cultural space they occupy is a magnified version of what I do, in a sense. Especially in the way I’m perceived.”
If Brick Body Kids was the first step in asserting himself in some sort of national conversation, Eagle had no interest in building upon that ghost with this new EP. And in many ways, a brisk, six-song EP after a career-defining album seems like a rash decision. But Eagle lets his work speak for itself: “I figured my six songs should have a lot of guts. My six songs have an album’s worth of guts. That should be sufficient. I’d put my six against anybody else’s six. I’d put ’em up.”
While the record as a whole is a swift assertion that Eagle has only grown stronger since his last record, a few of the songs are career highlights. There’s opener “Relatable (peak OME),” which finds the MC blending his searing irony with a self-deprecation that few can pull off with swagger and braggadocio. “I’m super accessible/ Just look at my calendar look at my schedule/ Monday is incredible!,” he declares with faux triumph.
Then, there’s “Southside Eagle,” the aforementioned fifth song of the EP and the one that’s a defining statement for Eagle’s mission. “If there’s a song on this project that really envelops the ethos of it, it’s ‘Southside Eagle.’ I really wanted to write all the songs like that, but even that song, when I started and I looked at what I had, I was like, ‘Oh, this is way dark.’ I actually ended up changing some of the lyrics to that song,” he explains. “I really wanted to dive into…It has something to do with the visceral feelings of my economic reality. I really wanted to push into that and express that, because I have a lot of internal dialogue about that all the time and I often don’t feel like I have an outlet for it.” In this sense — and no project in Eagle’s discography expresses this feeling of being stuck more than What Happens… — the economics of indie rap, and how it’s inextricably linked to every song Mike puts out, becomes painfully clear.
This isn’t a confusion of existential dread for a lack of upward mobility through art; specifically, a black art form. For Eagle, these two things can’t be separated. “We live in a capitalistic society, so existentialism and the economy, I don’t know how you split those up. I’d love to be able to, but that’s why I gotta do all this other shit,” he says. Those other things are near-constant tours, a Comedy Central pilot, a quick plane ride to Louisville to wrestle a Twitter troll. Mike Eagle’s a rapper — one of the best we have — but he also has to be so much more. “Increasingly,” Mike slowly asserts between bites of what he describes as a healthyish McMuffin, “the battle is economic in a way that it wasn’t before. It used to be aesthetic. Now it’s economic.”
With that stark reality, Mike bets on himself in a world that he describes as both low stakes and high. He has a lot to lose, but everything he may lose is his. “I survive on creative forced will. I survive on grand leaps that don’t make sense.” Hence the wrestling match and the six-song EP barely a year after his critical darling landed him an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. It’s a dark forecast, because there doesn’t seem to be an avenue for upward expansion within rap. Mike’s an independent voice, and space for rappers of his ilk in the mainstream is at maximum capacity. “I’m at the ceiling. I feel like I’m there…I really want to say that I’m not complaining. I don’t think there’s anything bad about the position I’m in. I can remember having nothing. I can remember that clearly.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I try to find a glimmer of hope, that Open Mike Eagle’s world isn’t at some sort of breaking point, where he can move sideways but no longer up. It’s a startlingly clean analogy for a vast number of people of color in our country. “I really believe in the potential of humanity, but I like to try to be really practical about the forces up against our development. It don’t look good, man.” Mike Eagle’s music has always been an unblinking, comically tragic mirror to society. “Capitalism is fucked up. It’s not ethical and there’s no way to do it right. I dunno what else to do.”
Until he figures out what that next thing is, he’ll keep rapping. And the people who love it will have their lives changed by his music — some will even get his words inked on their bodies (sorry, Mom) — and the people who don’t care will continue not caring. That’s all good with Open Mike Eagle, because his is a world for those who want to be a part of it. “I don’t know how to make music for strangers. I’m very accessible,” he says with a laugh.