“How is it ‘both sides,’ we ain’t both dyin’?” Open Mike Eagle queries on his latest project, the six-song EP What Happens When I Try To Relax. The question is as compelling as the album on which it resides, the result of Mike’s tangles with the anxieties of indie-rap success and American politics in the wake of last year’s excellent, profile-raising full-length, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.
While Open Mike has been a fixture of the underground rap scene for some time, the highly conceptual approach to his last album and the resulting media attention didn’t only increase his celebrity among fans of alternative rap, it also did the same for the already considerable pressures Mike faces at all times as an independent artist and a Black man in America.
Yet, even with his profile rising by the day, he still faces the everyday challenges of simply surviving in a time when it seems as though the law enforcement has been emboldened in its continual abuse of authority and deteriorated relationship with Black folks. “I live in the hood and my city gets difficult,” he grumbles on “Relatable.” Why? “‘Cause they treat us like criminals,” he reminds the listener, playing on the irony of the song’s title. He’s not really “relatable” at all to some of his audience, although some of other more mundane concerns may be the same, like figuring out “which sequels are truly canonical.”
His frustrations stem, it seems, largely from the fact that he’s billed as the ultimate regular-guy rapper, even more so than a Drake or a Kanye, but that there’s a disconnect between himself and the audience that seems most drawn to his music. Aside from eschewing the trappings of bling and aggressive, tough-guy demeanor, his humor and wry outlook have attracted listeners who don’t actually get what his life is really like, both as a working musician who pays bills and plays small clubs and as someone who has been consistently faced with the darker side of America’s seemingly endless opportunities.