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Will Schube has a cold.
In each episode of Mike Eagle and Baron Vaughn’s The New Negroes, the erstwhile unapologetic art rapper appears in a music video with a guest. While the show is ostensibly a variety show, the musical moments shined the brightest for a few reasons. The guests Mike and Baron were able to attract made the show newsworthy on a weekly basis. MF DOOM spits a great verse, Danny Brown reminds everyone how sharp he is, Method Man again asserts himself among the upper echelon of Wu-Tang, Father reigns as rap’s drunkest villain, and Sammus again asserts herself as next up. Also included are performances from Lizzo and Phonte, Video Dave and Percy Miracles.
As a standalone record, The New Negroes is stacked. The song format also allows for Mike to be funny in his most comfortable setting. He’s a thrilling humorist, but he’s at his strongest when packing punchlines into laser-sharp analyses of death, decay, and racism that verges on the existential. Mike’s thesis has always been misconstrued as, ‘This shit’s so awful all you can do is laugh.’ This stance lacks agency. Rather, Mike is a prophet who understands that we don’t care about things unless they’re pushed to extremes. One can only scream over beats so long before their voice gives out, so why not cloak all of this atrocity into a few hilarious bars?
After a mission statement of a theme song, rap’s favorite human airhorn Danny Brown goes bar for bar with Mike. Danny often gets cast as a drug-addled shock rapper, but line by line, he’s as witty as they get. But Danny doesn’t take the bait here. “Unfiltered” is a piercing critique of systematic oppression from police officers on Black civilians, inundating everyday life with an anxiety that turns everyday activities into life or death situations. And this is what makes The New Negroes as both show and soundtrack so compelling. It’s a zoomed in look at life in Black America, a caricature of struggle that’s far less exaggerated than it should be. On “Police Myself” with DOOM, you want to laugh at the bars. They’re funny, because they shouldn’t be true. “‘Cuz brothas lookin’ like a criminal is probable cause” is the first line of the song.
That Mike and Baron put this truth onto television is a radical act, a massive opening of space for ideas that should play as parody in a healthy union but function as guidebooks for Black people not wanting to die.
But Mike does stretch his purview on occasion. The Lizzo-featuring “Extra Consent” turns into a bureaucratic exercise in signatures and initials, an examination of what consent really means and when situations can never present such black and white terms. Again, it’s funny. But it’s not. “Woke as Me” finds Mike flushing the toilet only once a day because…the environment is collapsing. On “Lie,” Mike has Father help him put his clothes on the night after a party because things got a little too lit. But every time Mike strays too close to absurdism, he pulls himself back, focusing again on the show’s true thesis.
Cue “Racism 2.0,” perhaps the most searing song on the soundtrack, a post-Obama requiem that finds Mike and Sammus combing through applications for a new (old) racism. The New Negroes go to Charlottesville to figure out what happened to the ever-so-promising Hope & Change. It doesn’t end well.
It’s impossible to view the New Negroes without Trump, of course, because everything’s about him and what he’s mobilized racists to reveal about our country’s true colors. But the show and the soundtrack argue that Black art is stronger than ever in the face of its biggest, whitest enemy. This is a space for Black excellence to announce itself clearly and loudly, to the back of the room where even the loudest mics can’t reach. This is a show that can’t be silenced because it’s too damn good and too damn right. Open Mike Eagle has always been hilarious, but here, he shows just how dangerous it is to be the funny man. Especially when you’re Black, especially now, but crucially, always.