Music

Open Mike Eagle Perfects The Craft Of The Concept Album With ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’

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Concept albums are a funny thing.

For whatever reason, artists are drawn to them. The idea of a single narrative over the course of a twelve-song collection is especially appealing to rappers. It would be; rap, after all, began as a form of storytelling in the service of a singular idea — “I’m the flyest; I’m the richest; I get all the girls,” and so on.

However, for the most part, this type of album falls short. Call it a drawback of the creative process or a result of the average rapper’s short attention span, but rarely has the execution of these compilations ever matched the ambition of the concept.

Fortunately for Open Mike Eagle, he’s done a lot better than most with Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.

Somehow, Mike, a native of the Robert Taylor Homes projects in Chicago, has managed to synthesize a complete and fully-realized concept project, from the twelve songs to the rollout and promotion — just peep the perfectly-constructed website he set up to plug the album. He’s perfectly captured both the sense of nostalgia that we wished to evoke, and the creative flights of imagination of a young kid growing up in a tough spot and making the best of it.

The concept of Brick Body Kids, basically is similar to that of Lupe Fiasco’s “Daydreamin’” from his debut album Food & Liquor: transforming the high-rise, low-rent, government-owned “affordable housing” apartments into something more, influenced by cartoons and comics as much as gangs and drug trade.

Ironically, it was Lupe’s second album I found myself comparing Brick Body to as its densely structured “art raps” (Mike’s term), unraveled and coiled serpentine throughout the unorthodox, rumbling production.

Where The Cool largely failed to execute on its promise of a cohesive narrative with only four or five songs of the bloated 19-track playlist even touching on the tale of Michael Young History, Brick Body’s tighter, shorter run time allows Mike to directly address some aspect of the emotions and imagery he wishes to evoke throughout.

Each song forms a piece of the larger whole, the daily imaginings of a kid who doesn’t want to go outside to face the destitution and violence, but must, and so creates for himself universes in which to escape the trauma of loss and potential loss.

Mike invents “Legendary Iron Hood,” his very own super hero alter ego, as a response to his brother Charles getting hurt “while playing pretend,” getting swole (lingo for muscular) in order to seek revenge on the perpetrators, threatening, “That asshole better hope I never see him again.

Mike’s characters and deep musings are informed throughout by comic books, television wrestling, and of course, the songs that come through the radio, all building up the sort of persona that ‘hood kids the world ever will recognize: The stoic, no-nonsense tough guy who is unaffected by even the worst trauma, “No Selling” the “ton of pain” that each of them will face on the streets — “I gotta keep a facade, I gotta play it cool… Strong face, strong jaw shown to my competitors.”

Throughout, Mike’s flow remains limber; at times dense, concise, interior rhyme schemes dissolve and distort into singsong mumbling and drawn-out, straightforward old school A,B,C-style patterns. On “95 Radios,” he mixes the two easily into a low-key reminiscence of a search for a radio when a neighborhood homie says that the rapper on a song sounds like someone they know.

The production isn’t for everyone; ranging from soulful, to downright unsettling, Mike is fond of experimental beats that often trade in noise or discordant instrumentation that will turn off some listeners, particularly on the jagged-sounding closer, “My Auntie’s Building.” While the distortion effectively evokes the dissolution and destruction of the Homes via wrecking ball, it’s not exactly the most relaxing listen. Not to mention, the overall tempo of Brick Body remains laconic to say the least, and some fans will wish for a little more variety.

However, with his razor-sharp wit and sense of observation, Open Mike Eagle has created a concept album that actually executes, largely without sacrificing quality or becoming any less listenable. Fans of cascading rhymes and rewind-button-crushing wordplay will appreciate that Mike’s gift of gab remains refreshingly (or stubbornly) intact in an era of stripped-down cadences and simplistic content.

Mike’s gift for deconstructive raps is ironically the strongest tool in his arsenal when it comes to building worlds. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream succeeds because he is willing pick through the debris of the Robert Taylor projects to find the stories that made them more than just buildings, but homes. He is more than capable of putting the pieces together — not to rebuild a memory, but to honor what was, and how it built him into the person he is today.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is out this Friday, 9/15 via Mello Music Group/Wichita Records. Get it here.

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