On the hilarious mid-album interlude “WTF is Art Rap” from Open Mike Eagle’s debut album Unapologetic Art Rap, comedian Hannibal Buress sets the Eagle-created genre on fire – before it even can get started. Back then, 12 years ago, Mike Eagle was doing his thing with little interest or fanfare from the public, and here we have Buress – himself a fairly unknown entity at the time – ribbing the hell out of the rapper’s approach, lobbing insults about hummus, American Apparel t-shirts, and the way art rappers might aggressively point out their favorite elements of a Van Gogh painting.
The question still stands though, what the fuck is art rap? To Open Mike Eagle it’s his version of events, his analysis of the scene, the topics, the trends, all thrown together in a cauldron of beats and samples. The end result is dished out in heaps of idiosyncratic narratives like 2020’s Anime, Trauma, and Divorce, a heavy record on Eagle’s divorce and deterioration of body image. It didn’t garner the same reaction as his 2017 breakthrough Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, but some people did like it, in fact they loved it.
Two years on from that gut-punch, Eagle’s back with the mouthful A Tape Called Component System with the Auto Reverse, likely the most unintelligible title he’s used to date, but it’s an indication of Eagle’s mindset going into this. He explains this on “TDK Scribbled Intro”: “And every album is a little collection of pieces of yesterdays / I don’t have the words for the feelings / So I decided to make you a tape.”
Tape or album classification aside, Component System is the messiest and least theme-driven release of Eagle’s in some time. There’s no overarching concept or narrative gluing these tracks together like his last two. Instead, Eagle’s looser approach here results in a stouter contrast to those heavyweights, but loses none of his potency. Without the constraints Eagle inflicted upon himself, he’s freely able to bounce from rap to rap, bar to bar, with seamless professionalism, and it’s all the better for it. In short, Component System is possibly the strongest Eagle has sounded in years.
He’s not flexing on Component System, but he is conveying an elder statesman persona throughout. His malaise with modern rap at the forefront of his mind doesn’t restrain his humor or flow. Just as with billy woods’ wide-ranging references, one almost needs to have rapidfire Google search abilities to ping every joke and reference in Eagle’s work, and it’s even more compounded on this one than ever before.
On the brilliant Madlib-produced “Circuit City”, Eagle gets assists from longtime collaborator Video Dave and newcomer Still Rift for a three-minute exercise in nostalgia, referencing Connect Four, Silver Spoons, Fonzie, The Karate Kid, and anything else that came to their minds in the studio. This free-form tactic is energizing to Eagle’s raps, a healthy change of pace after the depressive nature of Anime.
That’s not to say Eagle’s less contemplative here. On “I Retired Then I Changed My Mind,” he returns to that “WTF is Art Rap” mindset, but doesn’t offer an answer, merely insight into his passing thoughts and whims, only to wrap it all up with a sighing: “I finally figured it out / shit took a minute.” This maturity will likely turn off those who swarmed Eagle due to his self-deprecation, but the man’s been doing this for 20 years, it was time for a change.
The changes aren’t regressive though. There some traditionally ear-wormy harmonies like the warm “79th And Stony Island” that finds Eagle at his most inward facing. But even here, Eagle’s still firmly aware of his audience, “Dream was hung from a dream / see the monster in me,” he hums over a Quelle Chris produced track that revolves over a dusty piano sample. He’s even speaking to us with the same hesitation we’re all feeling, “I used to love Big Bird, then I saw his n-word supercut / And Kanye gets to me and then I watch his documentary / I’m in a weird place mentally.”
In keeping with traditional tape aesthetic, Component System is chocked full of guests, the most Eagle’s ever had present. The savage duo of Armand Hammer (billy woods and ELUCID) punch holes through “Burner Account” over a dense trip-hop beat from Quelle Chris. It’s a meeting of minds, brilliant ones at that conjoin in pure deranged ecstasy. woods continues to dominate 2022, but Eagle’s never overshadowed by his supporting acts.
Elsewhere, R.A.P. Ferreira joins Video Dave and Still Rift to give “Multi-Game Arcade Cabinet” some much needed oomph, while Eagle spits a multitude of science fiction references, and then makes a harmless joke about being lumped in playlists with Mitski. Serengeti returns to the fold in “Credits Interlude” for a mostly solo endeavor, something that feels like a necessary break in speed, but it’s a little too brief. No biggie, the finale “CD Only Bonus Track” is the vigorous closer to bring it all back together, with Aesop Rock and Diamond D banging out some of the albums best lines.
As heart wrenching as Anime, Trauma, and Divorce was, it pales in comparison to the heartfelt tribute to “For DOOM”, Open Mike Eagle’s homage to his greatest inspiration. The two collaborated on only two songs over the years, the most notable being “Phantoms” from the Czarface Meets Metal Face album from 2018.
As one of Eagle’s heroes, the loss of Daniel Dumile is felt closer to the heart here than any of the posthumous tracks released since his passing; there’s pain mixed with humor here. He continues a path he started trading back in 2013 on his first collaboration with billy woods, “Fool’s Gold” from Dour Candy, where he relayed the story” “I once played the fool at a DOOM show / Really thought it was him cause I stood back a few rows.” To go from there to finally work with his hero was wonderful, but now he’s gone and Eagle’s feeling it.
Component System is impossible to sum up. It’s a tender, chaotic, and messy experience that feels all the more natural because of Open Mike Eagle’s transparency with his audience. This is Eagle at his most directionless, and for the time being that’s exactly what we needed to hear from him, because that’s how many of us are feeling too.