Nothing escapes the overseeing eye of Open Mike (Mic!) Eagle. The West Coast-based hip-hop artist recently released his five-song project, Sir Rockabye, in a “pick your price” fashion with no minimum purchase cost. It’s a move that illustrates his view of the music industry just as much as his reliably intelligent lyrics. Eagle presents his music as “art rap,” a self-proclaimed and otherwise nonexistent sub-genre of hip-hop that carries a certain weighted meaning for the listener.
Consisting of a brief but thorough critical essay on wax, Rockabye lends its attention to a variety of topics. One may think of the album as split into three components: the conclusion, the body paragraphs (the three middle tracks), and the introduction, which in comparison to the following songs is perhaps the most blatant flaw of the album. “Degrassi Picture Day” features a strong, sample-driven beat from Kuest1, but the song flutters due to the forced elongation of words, plaguing Eagle’s delivery, and while “Picture Day” succeeds in establishing a certain environment befitting of his societal explorations–conjuring the presence of a schoolhouse with references to lunch, his teacher, and of course, picture day–, it falls flat. The lyrics, though amusing at times, are comparatively unfocused, and at first glance, this critical, sonic piece is unassuming.
If the pause button remains untouched, however, then the experience quickly becomes fruitful. A detailed, multi-layered onslaught of rhymes compiles each and every track after the introduction, and the introspective emcee hones in on issues like an eagle does its prey. On “Middling”, Eagle uses a slick rhyme scheme and terms borrowed from the school of sound engineering to comment on the bland uniformity of suburbia in America: “Mid-ranged, flat EQ, not even lo-pass / filtered, You probably like gray better than silver.” The color motif continues throughout the song, symbolically pitching dull homogeneity against shining creativity in a quiet clash between opposing cultures. The title of the song itself hints at Eagle’s personal standing on the battle field, for he is a college educated artist, a creative mind graduated from a conformity machine. In this sense, Open Mike is the personification of an internal juxtaposition.
If “Middling” touches on the mental and environmental side of conflict, then “Password” focuses on the digital: it’s a track dedicated to those who invade one’s life with special mentions ranging from the police to the government to your ex-girlfriend. More specifically, the first verse alone sounds like a 2013 acknowledgment and honoring of George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984. The most striking aspect of “Password” lies within its hook, which summarizes how we can lose (and have lost) our privacy but is delivered with a childlike innocence, making for a moment that is strangely unsettling and captivating simultaneously.
Sir Rockabye continues to ascend in quality with “Clean It Up”, a track relying heavily on a shimmering synth atop boom-bap drums and a (within-album, trend-continuing) piano line. The instrumentation makes for a rather minimalist cut, pushing the spotlight’s shine towards the tremendous verses of Eagle and Has-Lo, who features on the song. Much like Kendrick Lamar did for good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Open Mike ensures that those who feature on his project fit his overarching vision. This time around, the two artists team up and unapologetically make bold statements. Has-Lo broadly denounces the tendencies of modern artists to start off the record (“Said the failed rap writer…. / …. You emailed a lot, but you never could get in”), while Eagle implements several fantastic multiple-meaning lines which take aim at the entire music industry: “The label says organic keep reading, though / the majors ain’t afraid to pay for GMO’s.” Much like how Eagle used numerous institutions as symbols for the loss of solitude previously on the album, he and Has-Lo discretely convey an indie-versus-major label system to suggest that those larger music companies are responsible for the decline in quality hip-hop. Artists are being thieved of their ability to create “art rap” because of the pressure to earn money.
This motif of theft appears and reappears throughout the short but powerful album, reaching its pinnacle during Sir Rockabye’s fitting conclusion (and Method Man homage), entitled “Mef’s Lament”. Open Mike Eagle weaves together a complex, dark series of rhymes (“Your sunglass hut is see through, and you fling it open every time you talk”) to ponder the extent to which humanity has been stripped of its kindness and originality. With such a short running time and so much lyrical content to cover, Eagle takes advantage of nearly every line. Each word and each phrase is implemented here for a reason. The album is not the most sonically pleasing project to listen to, but it is as thought-provoking as it is well-written. It is positively “art rap,” though it leaves a desire for the usage of more colors and different strokes.