The past year has been a stressful one for Open Mike Eagle. You can probably relate. "Watching the world on fire," as he puts it, hasn't been good for anyone's blood pressure. As a rapper and sometime comic, the 36-year-old L.A. resident would seem to have plenty of outlets for venting his anxiety. But even for a wordsmith of his considerable skills, trying to articulate outrage at a time when every day brings a fresh atrocity to deal with isn't just overwhelming, it's downright impossible.
"The thing about all that shit is, I'd like to know what to say about it, and speak to these big, ugly, complicated problems. But I haven't figured out how to get them down into song form," Eagle says over the phone from a tour stop in the epicenter of our national angst, Washington, D.C. "I don't have silver-bullet statements to make on the political climate, which I one day hope to have."
Perhaps that's why, for his new album, Eagle decided to focus his frustrations on an older, more personal trauma—the razing of the Robert Taylor Homes housing project in his childhood hometown of Chicago. Once the largest public housing development in the country, the property was labeled a hive of drugs and crime and targeted for "urban renewal" in the late '90s. Torn down over the course of nine years, 11,000 mostly African-American residents were displaced, including Eagle's aunt, whom he visited often as a kid.
In the destruction of those homes, Eagle saw a metaphor for the disposability of black lives in America. But in his memories of his time there, he saw a way to make the lives that populated the Robert Taylor buildings count for something. On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, released last month, Eagle vividly reconstructs the project and the life within its walls, creating a small but powerful monument to the tragedy and resiliency of the dispossessed. And in doing so, he managed to make some sense of what's happening now, processing new anguish through old wounds.
"A lot of it was making songs to give myself permission to yell," he says, "to have a place to release."
Eagle admits that, prior to working on Brick Body Kids, he hadn't thought about the Robert Taylor Homes in many years. Much of the demolition happened after he left Chicago for Los Angeles and began carving out his career in the alt-rap underground. Watching a documentary on the Homes last year opened a floodgate of both nostalgia and pain for him. What upset him most, he says, is that a decade after the last building fell, the land remains empty—a conspicuous two-mile expanse of fields in the middle of the city's South Side. This wasn't a simple case of gentrification, where the poor are forced out to create a playground for the wealthy. It was a wholesale, demographic erasure.
"The grand insult of the whole thing is that there's not a football field there, there's not a highway or anything," Eagle says. "It was just, 'This is a failure, let's get rid of it,' with no regard for the people who lived there."
Brick Body Kids is Eagle's attempt to give those people the moment of reflection deprived of them. Rendered as a comic book-style tableaux, the album is written through the eyes of a young, imaginative kid who sees himself as a hoodie-clad superhero. If Eagle has so far failed to find the language to accurately capture the Trump era, Brick Body Kids is alive with vibrant details. Throughout, he pays tribute to the survival skills of "ghetto children solving problems in the projects," describing poorly heated apartments warmed by open ovens and kids so desperate for radio reception they'd wrap their arms in tinfoil and point them out the window.
While the tone of the album is placid, almost meditative, with production that's at once warmly melodic and noisily avant-garde, there's unmistakable anger in songs like the concluding "My Auntie's Building." "It was people there and kids there/And drug dealers and church folk/And they hit that shit with a wrecking ball so hard thought the whole earth broke," Eagle raps over squalls of dissonance in the record's final minute. Visiting the site of the Robert Taylor Homes today, it certainly seems like the ground opened up and swallowed the place whole. But with Brick Body Kids, Eagle hopes that whatever ghosts are still haunting the area might finally find some closure.
"People were expected to move on without processing it," he says. "It's about taking a moment for the people who were there and commemorating them."
SEE IT: Open Mike Eagle plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Billy Woods, on Friday, Oct. 6. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.