“The truth is your thoughts and not what you said. Language is prison for what’s in your head. The thought is a mountain of matter. The word is a shred of what’s in your head.”
On paper, the chorus of “4NML (Korzybski’s Lament)”, sorta title track of Los Angeles based Project Blowed affiliate Open Mike Eagle’s latest album, 4NML HSPTL, is a strange curio. A rap song channeling semantics luminary Alfred Korzybski’s theories on the inadequacy of language? But such is the world of 4NML HSPTL. Razor sharp observations on the daily eccentricities of life in the digital age are routinely flayed by sharper observations on the futility of those observations. Confused? Deal. Sanity is a brittle agreement of basic postulates, a compromise from which deviations are more common than mental ward attendance records would suggest. Welcome to the hospital.
Mike’s an offbeat songwriter for sure, and his strength is his earnestly no-nonsense take on the world around him, which sidesteps modern rap’s rote reliance on played out platitudes about general superiority to the fellow man. In place of blackhearted raps about getting money, we get “Debits (Eagle Journal)” and “The Financial Crisis That Wouldn’t Go Away”, which ponder our dependence on an economic system that appears to the casual onlooker to be fucked almost by design, “HSPTL”, an ode to self improvement detailing the struggle to overcome jealousy and a drinking habit, and “Your Back Pack Past”, a send up of rappers who torch their identities and start over when things don’t work out. (2 CHAINNNZZZZ!) Mike’s limber, melodic flow is in rare form throughout, and he’s matched by sharp guest bars from Cali rap luminaries (Serengeti, Nocando) and gifted out-of-towners (Danny Brown, Has-Lo) alike.
While production on Mike’s previous album Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes was spread out among various members of the Hellfyre Club collective, this time around, frequent collaborator Awkward handled the whole of 4NML HSPTL. Awkward’s work here leans closer to electronic music than hip hop; the sample-based boom bap scattered throughout previous work has been jettisoned in favor rangy borderline electro-pop replete with layered synths and programmed percussion full of independently moving parts. “Cobra Commander” flirts with the wobbly bass of dubstep. “Dancebill” and “Lesson 23” tiptoe into rockist territory. “Debits” and “Bad News Brown” are both outfitted with emotive synths underscoring the hardships detailed in their lyrics. It’s a testament to Awkard’s skills behind the boards that 4NML HSPTL’s relative lack of organic sounds doesn’t commute a lack of warmth. Awkward’s production, like Mike’s lyrics, prizes sounds that are at once tuneful and purposefully a little disorienting.
We recently interviewed Mike and asked him to expound on the concept of 4NML HSPTL. His response: “Some philosophers have called it Chapel Perilous. It’s the place where nothing make sense because you’re actually experiencing the true chaos of the universe first hand.” For all its quirky wit and humor, this album at its core feels like it was borne out a crucible of adversity. Its jokes are self deprecating, its truths, lacerating, and its explorations of the frayed ends of sanity, startling. But this album isn’t about shining a light on the slaughterhouse. It’s a travelogue, and the roughest terrain is in the rearview mirror. The notes of positivity scattered throughout the record render Mike’s journey life affirming. 4NML HSPTL plays like dawn breaking over Mike’s dark night of the soul.