Open Mike Eagle Somehow Made An Entertaining Divorce Album
On the second song on Anime, Trauma And Divorce, his bleak and personal new album, the indie-rap lifer Open Mike Eagle goes for a punchline and then immediately wonders what he was thinking. “Headass (Idiot Shinji)” is a song all about understanding that you’re a self-sabotaging social lummox who can’t seem to get anything right. Eagle doesn’t just rap about it. He demonstrates it. After mentioning that he has a hard time with beaches, Eagle ends one self-excoriating verse like this: “I need that shield, it’s getting chilly, and there’s shrinkage/ A perfect time to rhyme with Peter Dinklage.” See: Peter Dinklage is an actor with dwarfism, and his name rhymes with “shrinkage.” It’s honestly amazing that I’ve never heard any rapper use that one before; it practically writes itself. But then Eagle thinks about it for a second, and it sends him spiraling.
When the chorus hits, Eagle starts talking about how he won’t rhyme “shrinkage” with “Dinklage,” even though he just did. He ad-libs: “But I won’t. Because I think it might offend him. And there’s no way he’s going to hear this. Ever.” Then Eagle realizes that his self-recrimination has sent him into cycles of further self-recrimination, and now he’s having a minor crisis over the sad reality that Tyrion Lannister might not ever hear his rap record. There’s a pause. Then: “Why am I like this?”
That’s the kind of question a lot of us ask of ourselves, and there’s never an easy answer. On Anime, Trauma And Divorce, Eagle asks the question over and over. Eagle has been asking hard questions in his music for a long time. He’s the sort of writer whose mind whirls in 15 different directions at once, who communicates in deep-cut references to cartoons and comic books and movies and rap music and pro wrestling. To properly get into his records, you need to be quick with pause buttons and Google fingers. That’s Eagle’s style, and Anime, Trauma And Divorce is an ideal example of that style. But it’s also an attempt to grapple with a personal hell-year and with the question he asks on that ad-lib. Why is he like this?
In the past few years, Open Mike Eagle’s marriage has dissolved. So has the Hellfyre Club, the loose underground-rap collective that once included him. His Comedy Central show The New Negroes was cancelled after one season, and so Eagle was forced to deal with the reality that he’ll never be as famous as he once hoped to be. That last bit is a longtime concern; on his 2018 EP What Happens When I Try To Relax, Mike mentioned that he won’t say anything to Kendrick Lamar or Vince Staples if he sees them out in public “cuz this independent hustle is adjacent.” But what was once a punchline is now a virtual permanent certainty, and that’s just one more thing that’s knocked him sideways.
On Anime, Trauma And Divorce, we hear a relentlessly clever writer attempting to make sense of knocked-sideways life. That seems like it should be depressing and virtually unbearable. It’s not. Open Mike Eagle is a great rapper and a great songwriter, and those two interconnected gifts help make AT&D not just listenable but actively enjoyable, a truly impressive feat. The album walks the same tightrope as a great self-deprecating stand-up set. We hear an artist reckoning with his own issues in front of us and then using those issues to fuel the voracious engine of other people’s entertainment. I don’t know if that’s healthy or not, but it can sure be powerful.
Originally, Eagle was going to deal with heavy themes a little more obliquely. Talking to The New York Times, Eagle recently said that he’d planned to build it around the concept of Black kids’ connection to anime: “The original thesis was, Black people need anime the most. A lot of anime is power fantasy stuff. I was about to connect the struggles of marginalized people to these power fantasies.” I’m not an anime fan, but I can say that my daughter got really into it immediately after starting middle school in the middle of a pandemic. So there’s something to that power-fantasy appeal.
But Eagle changed course because of his therapist’s advice. Talking to The Ringer, Eagle says, “I was in a therapy session, and my therapist reminded me, ‘Hey, you have an outlet that people would kill to have.'” So Eagle got heavy in ways that he never has. On the weirdly beautiful “Everything Ends Last Year,” the often-verbose Eagle strips things down to bare simplicity as he tells the story of his TV show, his rap crew, and his marriage. He ends every verse the same way: “It’s October, and I’m tired.” I haven’t had to deal with any of the same things Eagle has, but I get it.
There’s still a lot of anime on the album, and Eagle makes a lot of references that I don’t get. That’s fine. Whatever Eagle says that you don’t understand, you can take clear, stupid delight in the ones that you do — as I did when Eagle complained about his belly hanging like Ralphus, the guy who used to talk Chris Jericho to the ring when Jericho was in WCW in the late ’90s.
That Ralphus line is funny. A lot of what Eagle says on Anime, Trauma And Divorce is funny. He’s funny when he’s talking about the things he’s been doing to try to take care of himself: “Eat in comfortable places/ Probably should’ve got braces/ ’90s alternative, tryna make a comforting playlist.” He’s funny when he’s interrogating the idea of what self-care even is: “Yeah, get a cup massage! That shit works, bro!/ Shit fuckin’ hurt though.” And he’s especially funny on “The Black Mirror Episode,” the song where he complains, again and again, that an episode of the dystopic Netflix anthology series “ruined my marriage.”
Eagle won’t say which episode of Black Mirror ruined his marriage, and he’ll also admit that things were rough long before he decided to put this particular episode on: “It wasn’t like we called it quits that night. But we were watching an episode with this couple in it, and I don’t think we were able to come back from that.” On the song, he uses the show as a handy scapegoat anyway: “Shit should’ve came with a content warning!/ Watched that shit and didn’t talk till morning!” And he laments the moment he hit play: “Should’ve picked something else! Anything else! Do The Right Thing Blu-Ray on the shelf! Or the bootleg tape of Will Ferrell in Elf! Cuz now I gotta live with my goddamn self!”
Eagle’s album actually does come with a content warning; it has the word Divorce right there in the title. There’s no way to write about the album without making it sound like morose eat-your-vegetables catharsis. But it’s not that. Eagle made the album with U2/Taylor Swift collaborator Jacknife Lee as executive producer, and he uses a series of beats, from producers like Black Milk and Gold Panda, that allow his voice to get playfully melodic. There’s a lot of musical warmth in the album. There are hooks. There are jokes. There’s writing, which makes the album worth hearing in itself. And then there’s the possibility that an album like this might open up strange new horizons within underground rap — new ways to talk about the shit you’re going through.
Anime, Trauma And Divorce feels like a singular-vision album, a one of one. Mostly, that’s what it is. But on the same day that Eagle released the LP, another 39-year-old indie-rap veteran addressed many of the same ideas an preoccupations on an album of his own. The Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman’s new album Don’t Feed The Monster, recorded entirely with producer Quelle Chris, is full of the same anxieties: A long-term relationship that’s just ended, an uncertain future as a middle-aged underground rapper, a past full of bad experiences that he’s only just beginning to process. On opening track “Trauma,” he lays it all out: Young sexual experimentation, self-hate, familial resentments. It’s intense.
I haven’t yet connected to Homeboy Sandman’s album the was I have to Open Mike Eagle’s. The two rappers are vastly different, and so are their approaches. But there’s something amazing about both of those records arriving on the same day. Historically, rap music has almost always been superhero music, power fantasy stuff. It’s music about overcoming odds, about depicting yourself as the untouchable figure that you would like to be. One thing that’s impressed me about a whole lot of recent gen-Z rap music has been the way people like Lil Baby or Lil Uzi Vert rap about depression and trauma and insecurity — the way they dive into it head-on, rather than letting it linger as subtext.
Those new Open Mike Eagle and Homeboy Sandman records suggest that rappers from my own generation might find a lot of power from digging deep into their own issues, from getting vulnerable in public. We all have our own versions of that Peter Dinklage punchline — the anodyne moments that send us off on twisty internal self-doubt journeys. Let’s talk about it.
1. Junglepussy – “Stamina” (Feat. Gangsta Boo)
Junglepussy recorded her new album Jp4 with indie rock producers Dave Sitek and Nick Hook, which would normally be the kind of thing that would put me off a rap record. But Jp4 isn’t that. It works as a rap record, mostly because Junglepussy’s personality overwhelms the beats. That comes across strongest on “Stamina,” a sex song that’s visceral in its specificity: “Skeet in my weave, leave-in conditioner.” Also, 22 years after “Where Dem Dollas At,” Gangsta Boo is perfectly capable of crashing through a track like a wrecking ball: “Weak ass trick, want my pussy to devour/ Your dick game wack, he ain’t really got the power.”
2. Sauce Walka, Sauce Woodwinnin, & El Trainn – “FR, I Spill”
I don’t know what’s going on with Sauce Walka and his extended Houston crew right now, but it’s like someone just changed the fucking batteries on them. Sauce Walka was always one of the most forceful, animated rappers on the nationwide underground, but now every dude around him his catching up, throwing out berserk punchlines like a Texan Redman.
3. Payroll Giovanni – “What I Look Like”
The magisterial disdain just drips: “What the fuck I look like not wearing a belt?/ You a sloppy n***a, look at how you carry yourself.” I am wearing a belt, and I feel implicated.
4. Bfb Da Packman – “Honey Pack”
On the one hand, I’m a little worried about how the Bfb Da Packman thing is unfolding. If this guy is making videos at rented McMansions full of models, just like every other rapper with a little bit of viral fame, he’s losing the absurdist-underdog thing that made him so appealing in the first place. On the other hand, Packman said, “I musta glanced down in her crack, she had shit up in her ass,” and I almost spit my food out.
5. HoodFly Jay & Hooligan Only – “Rrandy Orton”
A good way to make sure I pay attention is to do your entire video in Dudley Boyz cosplay. This song is weird and intense and good, but let’s be honest, it’d appear in this week’s column even if it was trash.