Open Mike Eagle – What Happens When I Try To Relax: “Verbal dexterity, perfect comic timing, and a side of anxiety”
What happens when an indie rap heavyweight (who has just dropped an arresting concept album about the demolition of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, toured relentlessly and wrapped filming on a new Comedy Central series) tries to relax? Well, mercifully, Open Mike Eagle is back to provide us with the answer to that very question. Following last year’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – his most compelling work to date – the Chicago-born, LA-based artist has turned his attention once again to the kind of subject matter that has made him one of the underground hip-hop circuit’s most respected figures.
The six-track EP What Happens When I Try to Relax is a textbook demonstration of the verbal dexterity with which Eagle blends social commentary and dark, self-deprecating comic analysis of life in the in the age of alternative facts and 24-hour tweetstorms.
Opener ‘Relatable (peak OME)’ sees Eagle reconcile the pressure of keeping up appearances as an independent hip-hop artist with the multiple anxieties he juggles in the process. His increasingly frenetic and confessional delivery boils over into lines like “I’m kind of uncomfortable/I hate when I’m late ’cause I try to be punctual/I do what I wanna do/I do what you want me to/I’m super uncomfortable”.
While his anxious disposition is by no means a new source of material for Mike, where he really excels on What Happens When I Try to Relax is in the delicate task of isolating and exploiting specific aspects of it. We’re presented with six very different tracks, each of which examines the project’s theme from a different angle. What better way to tackle perhaps the most anguish-inducing side-effect of digital-age dating (that’s right, ghosting) than with a rap that seems, upon first listen, to be about dating an undead person? “Why you ain’t walk towards the light? This is a weird way to spend one’s afterlife/But yo, I ain’t judging, we’re just talking/But everything about this feels so haunted”, he raps over the eerie, Mono/Poly-produced beat of ‘Single Ghosts’.
In a 2014 KEXP interview to promote the hilariously clever Dark Comedy, Eagle admitted that any of his albums up to that point could easily have worked under the same title. Such is his propensity for churning out punchlines at his own expense that the same goes for this latest offering. In the tweeted liner notes for the project, he sheds some light on yet another standout track, ‘Southside Eagle (93 Bulls)’, claiming that, despite the urge to write an “uncomfortably honest” song about his financial situation, no less than six bars had to be dropped because they were just “too dark”. What we’re left with is, nevertheless, an impeccably delivered mission statement for Eagle’s style of rap, “trying to reach black kids in a room full of whites” and dodging Kendrick and Vince in public “’cause this independent hustle is adjacent”.
These six songs are proof of what many already knew to be true. While Open Mike Eagle may only just be on the cusp of the recognition he deserves – even after years of spinning razor-sharp verses out of the struggles of the underground rapper – he is still one of the most lyrically astute and comically gifted wordsmiths around. Whether or not he actually managed to relax remains unclear but, should he ever try to do it again, it will definitely be worth a listen.