Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
“A giant and my body is a building” – Brick Body Complex, track 7.
Concept albums are very much at home within the hip-hop world. Rapping allows for such an open usage of lexis, wordplay, and emotive language which can, if used in the right way, create a full and rich landscape conceptualised within the limits enforced by an album. 12 tracks can create a world. Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, a witty and poetic creation, succeeds in doing this.
To try an understand this album, a little context is needed. In 2007, a well-known housing complex in Chicago’s South Side, called Robert Taylor Homes, was demolished by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. As working class families were replaced by new tenants on public assistance who paid nearly nothing, operating income of these complexes fell drastically. This led to a rise in crime in the area. By the 1990’s, a lot of high-rise public housing had already begun to be demolished, as part of the HUD’s new HOPE VI initiative. Residents of these areas were promised that the demolition of these high-rises would lead to the construction of ‘communities’ through the creation of affordable, mixed-income housing.
Unfortunately, this meant one word for the community that had already called this area their home, and that word was gentrification. It is also the case that, since the demolition of these complexes, the Robert Taylor Homes and others, that not enough housing has been built to accommodate for all the people who were displaced. (For an incredibly in-depth look at this situation, you can read this investigation on the current housing crisis).
Micheal Eagle II, as his real name reads, spent a portion of his childhood in the Robert Taylor Homes, and his aunt was displaced from them when they were demolished, so this album is literally very close to home. I opened this review with the lyrics “A giant and my body is a building”, taken from the second single of this album, Brick Body Complex. For myself, it’s the keystone lyric to what this album is about, home, and the creation of an identity out of a geographical backdrop. We all have places we come from, places we identify with, and for a man who comes from a marginalised community, this feeling will be ever more the poignant.
“This is about trauma. It’s about how 30,000 residents were displaced and only one-third of them are accounted for — and there are no AMBER alerts for the other two-thirds,” Eagle says. “This is about the pain of that. And how black life in America seems to run parallel with painful events that we’re not supposed to talk about, because America doesn’t really want to hear it. This song and album is about how those buildings were torn down and replaced with nothing — not a new highway or a football field. Nothing at all.”
This is Eagle’s sixth solo album, and it is possibly his most intricate and well-constructed yet. He possesses an innate ability to marry wit and cynicism within his music, while simultaneously advocating for the wealth within black experience. His comedy and wordplay brings down a harsh light upon the truths that he tells, which upon further reflection, can be tragic. I remember the lyrics, taken from Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps), “Walk uncharted lands with no squad/ Spots my ancestors picked cotton/ They want me to carry their customs/ When I know the truth is postmodern”. Eagle effectively distances himself from the traditional ideas of what it means to be black in America, possible from a non-PoC’s point-of-view. What is interesting is that Eagle rejects the idea of their being one general untold story of black experience, but rather a multitudinous web of both elegant and tragic threads, countless voices that hold certain truths, of which many are not told.
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is an impressive mixture of voices that Eagle creates, but not just in terms of metaphor and character, but literally as well. He worked with 10 separate producers on this record, so the coherence of the aesthetic is impressive. One character who takes centre stage within the project, is the ‘Legendary Iron Hood’ – a streetwise kid who has been given a hard life. In the video to Brick Body Complex, Iron Hood becomes a superhero, trying to defend the black communities against gentrification (Personified by a yoga practitioner, a hip barber with a huge moustache, and two women who I can only assume, by the size of the jars they hold, are drinking the most obvious of hipster brews, kombucha – they are, naturally, all white).
Eagle’s skill is in his agile and adept rapping, his ability to craft witty and also portentous lyrics, complex rhyme schemes, and being able to perform these lines in a way which retains it’s clarity. It can be dark at times; “If there was justice all men would have to die/ Patricide/ Tweet at the void and heart the at replies” he raps on TLDR (Smithing), “I won’t sweat it, it happened to brothers every year/ I hit my thumb with a hammer and wouldn’t shed a tear, yeah/ Still waters, I’m running real deep” referencing stereotypical stoic masculinity, unfazed by physical or pyschological trauma. His witticisms serve to slightly cover up the darkness, like a blanket that doesn’t fully cover the bed.
Possibly the most hard-hitting song on the album is the final track My Auntie’s Building. Brooding bass lies distinct over boom-bap percussion, and Eagle himself sounds a little unstrung as he raps, as if his voice is about to break. “Where else in America/ Will they blow up yo village?” and “They say America fights fair/ but they won’t demolish your timeshare” stand out as accusing lines, vitriol against a governing body that has effectively abandoned its people. In this song, the Robert Taylor Homes is the body that is rapping, but it is also Eagle. His body is the building, the building is his body. It is the strong connection that develops between a person and their home over time, and something that if severed, can be horrific.
This album is a monument to displacement and trauma, a monument that can be heard anywhere. “I thought about the policy of erecting and destroying housing for black people, and the link I perceive between what happens to those buildings and what happens to black people’s bodies when they are murdered by the police. It all hurt a lot and stressed me out. I decided to go harder at it with my writing.” stated Eagle.
“This is about the pain of that. And how black life in America seems to run parallel with painful events that we’re not supposed to talk about, because America doesn’t really want to hear it. This song and album is about how those buildings were torn down and replaced with nothing — not a new highway or a football field. Nothing at all.” While it may seem like a small and solitary incident in relation to the universal themes of black experience, it is an amazing grounding point for a conceptualisation of those stories. Through turning the building into a distinct being perceiving everything around itself, Eagle effectively universalises that story of demolition and displacement, creating something that speaks for everyone.