Place and identity are intimately tied to one another. That’s truer in no other musical genre than hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar reps Compton, Chance the Rapper praises Chicago, even Machine Gun Kelly gives a shout out to the “216,” a reference to his native Cleveland. There’s always a little bit of hometown pride inherent in the representation, as if only a place like home could spawn a talent like these emcees, whose circumstances and experiences make them unique and define them.
On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle applies microscopic focus to Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, where he spent time as a child with his aunt and cousins, painting a grandiose picture of shared experience among communities of color.
The album kicks off with “Legendary Iron Hood,” which finds Open Mike Eagle positioning himself as a superhero. He rattles off X-Men references, saying “Ain’t nothing gonna stop me now.” The album begins with a daydream, and what kid doesn’t do this exact thing?
This Iron Hood character makes an appearance in the music video for “Brick Body Complex” as a masked Michael Eagle defending a model of three high-rise homes from a faceless white businessman. A young girl holds a sign that reads, “They forgot about the children.” These same kids who would spend days dreaming of superheroes have their homes and very lives threatened. Iron Hood encounters a slew of young, white, wealthy community invaders: a yoga enthusiast, a wax-mustachioed man, a sun-hat-wearing woman sipping juice out of a mason jar.
For Eagle, and for these communities, gentrification is an imminent threat, a form of violence. In the case of the Robert Taylor Homes, the dismantlement of the housing complex as Chicago moved to a low-rise, mixed-income public housing model in the early 2000s — the so-called Plan for Transformation — led to widespread displacement on the city’s South Side.
In the “Brick Body Complex” video, the faceless villain destroys two of the high-rises before he is confronted by Iron Hood. Our villain threatens Iron Hood but our hero is unafraid. Troubled by this defiance, the villain demolishes the third and final high-rise, prompting Iron Hood to fight the villain. In an effort to unmask this ruiner of homes, Iron Hood unmasks himself as well, and he is left to deal with the police and answer for his own “violence.” You only need to be peripherally aware of the modern day news cycle to know how this story will end.
The song contains a call to attention — an enormous priority for Eagle. He’s currently developing a comedy and music show for Comedy Central with actor Baron Vaughn titled “The New Negroes.” The concept is based on a live show of the same name that seeks to expand and challenge ideas of black entertainment and black life in America. “A lot of times with the faces that people are making, it looks like they are hearing perspectives on things happening in everyday lives in a way they haven’t thought about before,” Eagle told the New York Times in 2016, describing the reaction the show received. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream seems to have the same goal.
Sonically, the album feels intimate. Relaxed beats ride under a calm cadence. Even at his most intense, Eagle feels as if he’s gripping you by the shoulder and looking you in the eyes more than shouting from the rooftops. The album as a whole feels as if Eagle is sitting with you on your front stoop, shooting the breeze. The conversation changes from the impassioned accounts of community goings-on to happy bouts of nostalgia.
“95 Radios” portrays a desperate search for a radio in order to hear a song by a group from the neighborhood. The video explores a single community and the cast of characters that inhabit it. Later, Eagle marvels at being on the radio himself: “[A] piece of me show feels personal, circled on all sides by used car commercials. It’s worth it though, whole block listenin’ …”
Through his hyper-local focus on the Robert Taylor Homes, Eagle reveals the universality of his experience. Gentrification isn’t just impacting Chicago. Just this September, a mass of people, organized by the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network (BAN), gathered in Crown Heights to protest plans to turn the disused Bedford-Union Armory into luxury apartments. Eagle knows the story well, even though it’s happening in our own backyard half a country away, and he stands in front of us now warning of an unhappy ending for communities under siege.
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream ends with a heartbroken, angry, personal account by Eagle of his aunt’s home being demolished and replaced by an empty lot, as if its mere presence was a detriment. “Who else in America deserves to have that feeling, where else in America will they blow up your village?” Eagle asks, but he already knows the answer: “They say America fights fair, but they won’t demolish your timeshare.” Black communities painted as violent and problematic are the first victims of urban renewal but, as Eagle notes in his lyrical effigy, neighborhoods are much more complex than the broad strokes that portray them. “It was people there and kids there and drug dealers and church folk,” Eagle raps.
Eagle masterfully calls attention to the destruction of black lives wrought by gentrification. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a timely chronicle of a community in crisis and hopefully it reaches an audience with open ears. Eagle wants you to know that the sound of homes being demolished is the “sound of them tearing my body down …” His album is a call for us to stand in the way.
Photo: Open Mike Eagle. Credit: Emarie Trafie.