At 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 16, the day after his most recent album was released, Open Mike Eagle — the pen name of Los Angeles-based, Chicago native Michael Eagle — responded to a tweet asking, “Who’s Uncle Butch?”
“my uncle that served in vietnam and used to cry in the kitchen when he thought no one was around,” he wrote.
The question is a reference to “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretending It Dont Hurt),” a track off of Eagle’s new album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, his fourth official release in as many years. Brick Body Kids, though, has far more weight to it than his other recent releases, with a more concrete mission at its core. Eagle’s tweet is a good proxy for the intensity that permeates the album, whose songs repeatedly reference the Robert Taylor Homes housing project.
Located on the southside of Chicago, the project was home to 11,000 residents, 99 percent of them Black and 96 percent unemployed. Its demolition was completed in 2007, and it was “considered the worst slum area in the United States” according to a 1998 New York Times article titled “Razing the Slums to Rescue the Residents.“
While the article frames the demolition as a largely positive event — an opportunity to help move underprivileged, low-income individuals to safer communities — it’s clear that Eagle has a more nuanced take on the issue; he lived in the project until late in high school. The popular media saw salvation in the demolition. Eagle saw friends, family and memory all unempathetically displaced by an indifferent-at-best government.
Evidence of Eagle’s personal investment in the Robert Taylor Homes project is found most clearly on two tracks. In the single, “Brick Body Complex,” he raps from the point of view of an apartment building in the development (“My other name is three nine two five / Make sure that my story’s told / Sixteen or so stories high / Constructed 55 years ago”). The second track being the album’s final cut, “My Auntie’s Building,” on which Eagle is at his most politically direct.
“They blew up my auntie’s building / Put out her great grandchildren / Who else in America deserves to have that feeling,” he raps over a stilted, percussive beat. He moves from confused grief to not anger, but enlightenment, with a pointed jab at bourgeois America: “They say America fights fair / But they won’t demolish your timeshare.” He closes out the song repeating a line —“That’s the sound of them tearing my body down to the ground” — where he is once again the project itself.
The Robert Taylor Homes that Eagle knows was not simply a place, nor were its tenants as one-dimensional as the media insist. If there’s one thing Eagle wants us to get out of all of this, it’s that the residents of Robert Taylor Homes (and every other poverty-stricken housing project in America) are people, just like us and just like him, not a problem to be neutralized and relocated.
Brick Body Kids isn’t purely a work of lament and subsequent criticism, though. Songs like “Daydreaming in the Projects,” an ode to childhood innocence (and its premature deterioration), are more hopeful and less rebuking. The chorus is almost-cheerful with a brass-accented melody: “This goes out to / Ghetto children, making codewords / In the projects around the world / Ghetto children, fighting dragons / In the projects around the world.”
Leading single “95 Radios” is similarly nostalgic, as Eagle reflects on moving between homes and listening to music as a kid. “The OGs, I miss my old hood / Miss my homies, is lonely / The radio host is like they know me,” he raps over an unhurried, whimsical beat. Though innately hopeful, Eagle’s apparent nostalgia juxtaposed against the destruction of his childhood home ultimately serves to show just how out of touch the higher-ups of America’s socioeconomic hierarchy truly are with those on the lower end.
Sonically, Brick Body Kids is relatively easy listening and distinctly Open Mike Eagle in style. The kids probably wouldn’t say that the album “slaps,” but it is lyrically dense and candidly poetic, drawing on a diverse body of sounds and samples. Eagle’s poetic tendencies rarely come across as pretentious though, and it’s evident that he knows when and how to take himself seriously. References to pop groups, old video games and comics — “Legendary Iron Hood” is riddled with mentions of names from X-Men — run as thickly as allusions to personal struggles and politics — “When the king is a garbage person / I might wanna lay down and die / Power down all the darkest urges / Keep my personal crown up high,” he raps on “Happy Wasteland Day.”
Ultimately, this release feels like Eagle refocusing, not just permanently cementing his place in the alternative rap scene (where he was already a prominent figure), but also asserting himself even more overtly as one of the most politically-minded hip-hop artists of the modern day. He balances nostalgic introspection with exceedingly clever external critique, creating a thoroughly cohesive piece that functions as a near-perfect reaction to the times. Eagle’s calm wit and precise poeticism in combination with his scathing tongue deliver in a way that no one else can consistently do, making him a unique standout in a community that’s becoming more politically conscious by the day, and with good reason.