Ben Grenrock’s friends are superheroes.
Halfway through Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle demands to be called by his name, not a “n***a or rapper,” but simply, “Michael Eagle.” Like much of what Mike has done throughout his career, this runs counter to established rap conventions. Rappers often seek to label themselves, to shrink their personality into a couplet and feed listeners a digestible sample of their identity. And that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with performers putting themselves in easily SEOable boxes, picking and choosing the pieces of themselves they want to be known for. Still, unlike the blank slate of a birth-name, any label is a form of compression. As Michael Eagle puts it, true identity is, “giant,” too big to ever, “fit in your description.”
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is not an album about developing or defining Mike Eagle’s identity. It’s an album about deconstruction. On the surface, what’s being taken apart are the buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes—Chicago housing projects that Mike’s aunt lived in, of which he’s “got memories from in high chairs”—that were torn down by the city ten years ago. But like those buildings, Brick Body Kids, is a multiplicity of stories stacked atop one another. Beyond recounting the Homes’ destruction, the record breaks down things less tangible yet far more ingrained, things that are in many ways even more dangerous than a South Side ghetto.
On March 8th 2007, Building 22, the last standing edifice of the Robert Taylor Homes, was razed to the ground by municipal bulldozers. When the brick fragments had been cleared away, what was once the largest public housing developments in the country had become a 2-mile stretch of empty fields. In the years leading up their demolition, the Homes had been labeled many things by a media shocked at the overwhelming levels of violence and poverty it saw there. Typically, “home” wasn’t one of them. “Failed experiment,” and “disaster,” were more common.
In the decade after the buildings fell, the vernacular used to label them didn’t change much. Epigraphs of the Robert Taylor Homes can be read in articles titled “The Biggest Urban Renewal Flubs,” and on websites called “Chicago Gang History.” A New York Times article about the Homes is partitioned by section headers like “Hard to Place Tenants,” “Troubled Families,” and “Decline and Fall.” This has been the lexicon defining the public legacy of the Homes and their tenants. Both have been reduced to snapshots of their most desperate moments, condensed into words and statistics that only tell a story of systemic despair.
Buildings can’t talk, but Open Mike Eagle can. On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream he lends his voice to the ghosts he imagines haunting those vacant fields in Bronzeville, personifying The Robert Taylor Homes and recounting the private thoughts their residents might have confided when only the walls were there to listen. The result is an intimate glimpse of life in the projects, so emphatically humanizing it turns cement to skin and—more importantly—rips the lexical labels off of inner-city existence.
On “Daydreaming In The Projects,” Mike accomplishes this by distilling various activities that could carry a plethora of negative labels into a single positive trait. The verses stroll through the Homes’ courtyards and alleyways, observing street corner scuffles, self-medicating, gloved hands digging through dumpsters in search of a discarded BigMac. The song’s refrain then reframes these actions, not defining them by their catalysts (frustration, depression, poverty), but showing them for what they actually are at their core: “Ghetto children solving problems in the projects.” They become examples of resourcefulness, of the same problem solving skills that would be praised without a second thought were they surrounded by white picket fences and cul-de-sacs.
Whether it’s in tales told of running the oven with its door open to supplement inadequate heating during a brutal Chicago winter, or in Mike’s offer to, “Teach you how to kill a roach with a boat shoe,” the ingenuity required to survive in the projects is a recurring theme on Brick Body Kids. Even the album’s production evokes the enterprising pastiche of a John Otterbridge sculpture. Rumbling, rattling, dissonant sounds are cobbled together (by Kenny Segal, Exile, Andrew Broder, DJ Nobody, Lo-Phi, Has-Lo, Caleb Stone, Illingsworth and Elos) into poignant compositions that push a song’s concept forward or simply hold an honest beauty in the interplay of their unvarnished elements.
The beat DJ Nobody provides for the record’s second track is the exception that proves this rule. Sleeker than any other beat on the album, “(How Could Anyone) Feel At Home” sounds sweet enough to reliably raise goosebumps. Still, like its peers, the beat serves as a solid workbench atop which Mike Eagle continues to disassemble the meanings of words; in this case, “home.”
The song foreshadows the destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes by recounting the closure of a local bar—a place that had become a second home to its patrons, somewhere to go out of necessity to escape the Homes themselves. The resigned despair in Mike’s voice when he realizes, “O’Doyles is closed/ and it never was closed/ even whenever it snowed/ every night it was there,” is that of someone trapped in a vacuum of institutionalized unbelonging. It’s not yet a lack of shelter lamented on “(How Could Anyone) Feel At Home,” but a lack of everything else a home ought to be.
Mike does something similar with the concept of a “holiday” on “Happy Wasteland Day,” and he chips away at the cracks in indifference’s forced façade on “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt), but “Breezeway Ritual” is the record’s most emphatic deconstruction. Rather than taking a lyrical wrecking ball to the preconceived notions inherent in the use of the word “ghetto” as an adjective, Mike performs surgery. The label is turned inside out, imbued with an exponential richness of meaning, and then sutured back up into its original phonemes.
The song begins and ends with these lines:
“Ghetto in the way I drink/
Uncle, uncle, my ship sink/
Ghetto in the way I think/
hide my troubles my shit don’t stink/
Ghetto in the way I talk.”
The first time around this hook allows listeners to conjure their preconceived notions of “ghetto” and bolsters them with the same suppression of vulnerability outlined to great effect on “No Selling.” Then Mike explains what some of those hidden “troubles” actually are:
“My auntie still give god the glory/
Shot by the book depository/
Never heard one of grandfather’s stories/
Permanent sadness constant mourning/
Twenty-two grandkids, one apartment/
Turn the stove on cause we’re done with darkness/
Social workers don’t want sons with fathers/
When they visit people bite their tongue the hardest”
The verse’s discourse spirals larger and larger until it swings into metaphysical strata (“What if there’s a god, but he’s scared of us?” and “I seen the angles, how they compliment/ subatomic particles do not commit,” etc.). When the hook returns, its words are unchanged, but their conventional meaning is altered. The second time Mike spits, “Ghetto in the way I think/ hide my troubles my shit don’t stink,” not only is the Herculean effort behind keeping “troubles” of this scope bottled up better understood, the complex meditation he’s delivered augments any assumptions about what Mike might mean when saying the way he thinks is “ghetto.”
Open Mike Eagle may not have been art rap’s progenitor (Busdriver was shouting “Art rap! Art rap!” over jazz samples on 2009’s Jheli Beam a year before attending the “Art Rap Party” on Mike’s debut), but Mike has unquestionably been the sub-genre’s foremost advocate and example. Though an admittedly heady name, it’s hard to think of a better way to describe music that demands active engagement from a listener to access to the societal critiques it presents. Much of the time these critiques are delivered with comedic jabs, as in Open Mike Eagle’s 2014 masterpiece Dark Comedy and most of Busdriver’s catalog. But Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, the most stark and serious album Mike has ever delivered, might be the apex of art rap to date.
The best art challenges the way you think about something, using its aesthetic elements to woo or shock listeners or viewers into seeing the world differently. Labels do the opposite; they lock complex people and ideas into digestible packages that can be mass-produced simply by speaking them into existence. Labels may seem like a jumble of letters and sounds, but they have the power to influence everything from the trajectory of the smallest intrapersonal action to public policies that effect tens of thousands of lives.
It’s a breathtaking move of aikedo-like energy transference for Open Mike Eagle to take the destruction of his auntie’s building and use it to tear down labels that for too long have shrunk those living in housing projects into signifiers smaller than their humanity. The record isn’t quite a love letter to the Homes themselves—it doesn’t pull punches in showing how harsh life in state-created ghettos can be; it’s a love letter to all the oft-neglected goodness that existed within them in spite of overwhelming negatives.
This is still a rap album, and even one as scintillating as Brick Body Kids Still Daydream can’t be the panacea of societal change the issues it explores demand. But Open Mike Eagle’s decision to attack limiting labels with discourse that seeks to broaden is bold, powerful, and deeply effective. By any definition of the word, it’s nothing short of art.