I like to use this column to talk about rap as an art form. While many people would disagree that it is a legitimate art, those people are stupid. There are a variety of artists out there who don’t spit the same stupid shit as Soulja Boy and Young Jeezy. There’s deconstructionists like Lil B and Yung Jake, complex lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, subtle genuises like Kanye West and Jay-z, experimentalists like Kid Cudi, and empowering poets like Common. Rap and hip-hop, as a genre, is no different than any other genre, and it’s almost degrading to say that it’s a “lower musical form”, especially given what’s happened in the past 10 years or so. If you look at the worst of any genre, you would say that it’s inane, stupid, and doesn’t require any musical talent.
All that said, very few, if any, of those rappers would describe their music as “art rap”. If presented with the term, they might agree, but I doubt any of them bring up the term on their own. Which brings us to today’s artist, Open Mike Eagle, who has been working since 2004 on what he calls art rap. And I can’t disagree with him in the least. He’s the hip-hop equivalent of a walk through a Van Gogh exhibit with Mark – intelligent, classy, but a few nerdy jokes are tossed around.
Lyrically, he’s on the same level as Kendrick Lamar. Lamar, a straight-A student, probably could have gone to college if he didn’t grow up poor and in Compton. OME, on the other hand, was able to go to college in Chicago, and parlay that into a teaching degree to keep him afloat until he could start making money from rapping. The ex-teacher knows his the power of literary devices, and employs their use frequently. And it’s not like he just throws similes and metaphors around like Lil Wayne; his verses are always tight and pointed, and never stray far from the theme and message of the song. Even his Serengeti-esque raps like “Nightmare” feels smart and real and vastly deeper than what it probably is.
But what makes the songs great is his delivery. He has a very relaxed vocal delivery gives his lyrics a certain power to them, as though he doesn’t need to yell at you or put extra emphasis for you to be awed by his talent. It reminds me almost of a poem read at a jazz club, which is probably why he also considers himself as a rapper for the over-30 crowd. He doesn’t talk about getting money, fucking bitches, killing dudes; he talks about his own personal life, or preaching about how you should live your life, or about the modern rap game. He’s a rapper I can see my dad listening to and enjoying thoroughly (although my dad is a huge Frank Zappa fan, so it’s hard to pin his tastes).
Of course, he doesn’t want to alienate his internet following, so he speaks of nerdiness, loneliness, and social awkwardness. As he says, “I’m king of the socially awkward guys” (I would challenge him on that, but I try not to talk to people). He also speaks to me on a personal level, as evidenced by this recent Facebook conversation with me, by revealing he’s just as lazy as I am (side note – that’s what’s about this job/hobby; talking with the artists we like). He grew up in Chicago as that nerdy black kid, wearing cheap clothes and corduroy pants, and doing well in school. Of course, that kind of living led him to where he is today, so in the end it was all worth it.
But that kind of background is the new de jour of modern rappers. As mentioned previously, Kendrick Lamar was good at school, Tyler, the Creator was taking AP classes, Chiddy Bang went to Drexel (represent!), Childish Gambino graduated NYU with a degree creative writing, and Kanye West famously went to college for a year (he dropped out after a year to become a producer). Intelligence and nerdiness is finally starting to emerge from the rap game, and Open Mike Eagle is probably the smartest and geekiest of them all. He’s got a whole song using video game analogies to real life, and a song narrating a story where OME’s character gets kicked out of a fairly nerdy group of the intelligent kids. He’s got nerd cred for days.
But beyond that, he’s got some really hot beats backing him up. “Boss Fight” even features a beat that sounds more at home on the Drive soundtrack than a rap album. Dark beats with swirling and deep synthesizers, jazzy drums, pianos, violins, and strange electronic beeps and boops. I’d love to see what Flying Lotus or XXYYXX could do with him. The beats he works on almost all paint a dark, hazy memory, almost like a nightmare you think about the next day. Ironically, according one his best songs, “Nightmare”, he says that “Every word that comes through me; it was born in a nightmare”.
The only weakness of his Rent Party Extension EP, the most recent OME release and what got me hooked, is the verse by Eagle Nebula on the song “Amped”, which is of no fault of OME. That verse pretty much tanks the entire song, since it covers most of the song, but the EP, as a whole, is fantastic, and probably his best work yet. His flow is magnificent and on point, the beats behind him are solid, and the lyrics are tight.
Here’s the free EP. Go download it. It’s just over 15 minutes long, and it’s free, so there’s nothing to lose. He’s dropping a new album this June, so keep up with this dude and check that out. Like him on Facebook if you want to be one of the cool kids.
But the track I’m sharing today isn’t on that EP (if you want my suggestions, listen to the entire thing, other than "Amped"). “Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes” is just too much fire for it to not be heard. The swirling, ambient synth buzzing around your head, the African drum beat, and the occasional trumpet blast backing up Open Mike Eagle helps to emphasize his anger at modern music. The openness of the instrumentation makes OME’s lyrics stand tall. And lyrically, it’s a sharp critique of the modern rap industry, where hood rats are the ones that get record deals, but they stop being “ghetto” once they get that money. And now they’re getting older, and can’t talk about getting shot during a crack deal. On top of that, the industry and various entities like MTV only reward rappers who sell the most records. It’s a very poignant song that anyone could jam along to, even the “old” rappers and MTV executives.