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How Open Mike Eagle Channeled His Pain Into One of the Year’s Best Rap Albums

The L.A. artist discusses what it was like to expose himself fully on ‘Anime, Trauma and Divorce,’ why drive-in shows are a challenge, and documenting hip-hop history on his podcast with the legendary Prince Paul

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Open Mike Eagle’s new album wasn’t supposed to sound so personal. Originally, the Chicago-born, L.A.-based indie rapper had planned for his fifth solo LP, the follow-up to 2017’s excellent Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, to use anime as means to explore deeper concepts. But as he suffered personal and professional setbacks in 2019—namely his separation from his wife and the cancelation of his Comedy Central show, The New Negroes, which he hosted with Baron Vaughn—he felt something wasn’t clicking for the project.

“Even while I was making it, I was having the sense that it wasn’t specific enough,” he says. “It wasn’t making the kind of statement that I like to make.”

So, at the urging of his therapist, he pivoted. The songs that flowed were the most direct, intimate ones of his career, which he collected on Anime, Trauma and Divorce, released October 16 on Auto Reverse Records. On the album he tackles the separation and the end of the show, but also other struggles like the dissolution of his crew, Hellfyre Club, from a few years prior. It’s the portrait of a 39-year-old rap veteran at a crossroads, and it may be his best work yet.

Mike’s writing has often mixed heavy subjects with one-liners and non sequiturs—take 2015’s “Dark Comedy Late Show,” where tossed-off Spin Doctors and Karl Kani references mingle with insights about police brutality and this country’s forever war with Iraq—but on ATD, he drops the comedic remove. The standout track “Everything Ends Last Year” speaks plainly about some of his well-documented struggles, while “Airplane Boneyard” seems to question whether the sweat equity he poured into his rap career has been worth it. As the album’s title suggests, anime still plays a major role, but instead of using it like a thesis for a research paper, he uses it to explore concepts like the cycle of trauma (“Death Parade,” named after a popular 2015 series) and empowerment—most notably on “I’m a Joestar (Black Power Fantasy),” an homage to a favorite of his, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

The humor that made Mike an indie rap star, burgeoning comedic talent, and stellar podcaster is still on display, however. “Sweatpants Spiderman”—a nod to the middle-aged, depressed Peter B. Parker from Into the Spider-Verse—finds a post-divorce Mike thinking about doing more push-ups and eating Wheat Chex. And one of the album’s most harrowing moments is also one of its most hilarious: “The Black Mirror Episode,” where he recounts how one episode of the dystopian series deepened a crack in his marriage:

Before you click it read the description
If it’s a love story pick something different
I should’ve known from the very first season
Couples fighting for some pretty good reasons
Happy home go to hell cause of tech shit
Well my shit went to hell cause of Netflix

Truly frightening stuff. Mike sat down with The Ringer last week to talk about the song—no, he won’t say which episode it was—as well as the experience of exposing himself fully in his music for the first time. He also discussed his excellent podcast What Had Happened Was, where he interviews the legendary hip-hop producer Prince Paul about his work with De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Gravediggaz. Unlike the Black Mirror episode, this interview needn’t come with a content warning, though it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How are you holding up, Mike?

Man, it’s very day-to-day. That was already with everything going on, and this album is super personal and I’m not used to making work that is super personal. It’s been challenging to have an album like this also be a product in the world, and so it gets treated the ways that products get treated. I’m having to really attend to myself for how that feels because it feels hella weird.

Is it weird to have so many personal details like the divorce and the cancelation of the show get brought up in every interview? It’s like, this is your life.

It’s super odd. There’s a little piece of me in everything I put out, but there’s way more of me in this. Reading reviews for this feels different than reading reviews for anything else. Most of the reviews have been super positive. But I read this kind of negative review about an hour ago and it felt so strange because I couldn’t help but take it as a critique of who I am as a person.

“Everything Ends Last Year” specifically was direct in a way that your material really hasn’t been in the past. The album as a whole feels very direct. Was that intentional?

Yeah man, I was making a regular album—regular for my purposes—and I was going through a bunch of shit. I was in a therapy session and my therapist reminded me, “Hey, you have an outlet that people would kill to have.” People would kill to have a way to say things they can’t usually say in real life or try to get shit out, or process feelings and I never thought of using my music that way. There’d always been such a distance between my emotional self and my music. I started really trying to speak directly about what I’m feeling.

One of my colleagues, Dan Devine, is a fan of yours, and he described the album to me as the moment where he can’t tell if his daughter is hysterically laughing or hysterically crying.

Damn, yeah. That’s on point. But then the question for me is: Have I been in that moment the entire time and maybe you weren’t noticing? I put it out there to have those sorts of strings for people who are interested to pull at and see how far back they can go.

The first song on the album is “Death Parade.” As the opener, it feels like something of a mission statement. Am I right in that?

That song in many ways is a thesis about the cycle of trauma and how that has played into everything else that I talk about on the album. I think it ultimately ends up going back to a foundational trauma that keeps getting manifested and replayed over and over again. That song is so cyclical in itself that to me it seemed like the perfect thesis.

There are plenty of other universal ideas here, like “Sweatpants Spiderman.” I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve come out of a waking slumber and decided to get more into fitness, or eat more vegetables, or really dig into the Criterion Collection, or whatever we do when we’re trying to make some self-improvements.

I knew I had to start a life on my own again. I was looking at everything I was doing in a different light—that’s everything from where I was living, to what I was watching, to what I was buying. It struck me as, “That’s right. This is that midlife crisis thing people talk about all the time.” But also, it delights me to write a rap song like that. There’s a special kind of pleasure in taking this form that has always been about youth and aiming it in my direction. Those were very real feelings and very real choices in that song, but it makes me happy for mischievous reasons as well.

That last part is funny to me. Yes, you’re 39, but it seems like your career is on an upswing. Every album is getting bigger for you. Your art is getting better. Is there a dichotomy between how you feel and how it seems things are going?

I think that in turning 40 and continuing to have a rap career, you have to come to terms with the fact that it might not be a curve or if there is a curve it’s a lot slower of a curve than what you would expect in a rap career. It’s about having to come to terms with that. There’s certain things that I have to accept that I’m never going to have. Anybody rapping, and they’re really putting their all into it, they expect the world to open up to them and for them to be seen as a rapper the same as Drake, the same as Kendrick, the same as Run the Jewels. Whoever you can think of. That’s what they want, and it’s what I wanted, but I have to come to terms with the fact that my ceiling ain’t that. My ceiling is something else. I don’t know what it is but it certainly ain’t Drake. It’s like even if what you’re saying is true, even if it is upward, it’s upward but to where?

You tweeted the other day that your entire career has been a slow burn. You’d like a fast burn.

Just one.

But some of the artists you’re referring to with the higher ceiling have a much faster burn than you’ve had, and they may hit the floor a lot quicker.

In some senses, for sure.

Of course it’s case by case, and I don’t want to turn this into a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of thing, but there do seem to be some advantages to your slow burn.

I certainly feel grateful and accomplished because I look at a lot of people who I started with that are not able to even do this anymore. I look at people who started before me and they’re having a hard time being able to make impacts with their releases. And I’m all about having a career on my own terms, but it usually looks something like this. I can’t look at a younger artist and with any sense of sincerity and tell them, “Hey, do what I did.” I don’t know how to tell somebody to walk the path that I’m on because I’m not even sure where it goes. It goes to a really weird place.

As much as I love rap music and I feel like I’m a part of rap music, when it comes to the conversation around rap music, I have to be very used to not being a part of that. There’s no easy way to reconcile that. I imagine in some sense it’s similar for a Killer Mike. I imagine in some sense it’s similar for a Danny Brown. Even though they’re very well-known, they’re a little outside of the hip-hop conversation.

Let’s talk about the album title: Anime, Trauma and Divorce. Divorce and trauma certainly fit together. How does anime fit into that?

It’s my sort of escapism. When I started making the album, it was specifically about Black people escaping through anime because in any hood in America man, there’s young people who fuck with Dragon Ball really hard. Who fuck with Naruto really hard. Who fuck with Bleach or Death Note. I’ve always been fascinated by that because that was my introduction to it too. I’m in the hood as a teenager and Dragon Ball is the best thing in the world. There’s an attraction to the power fantasy in all of these anime, especially the Dragon Balls and Narutos. The characters start out really weak, and over time they get really strong and they end up able to kick anybody’s ass in the universe. I think there’s always been some resonance in communities that I’ve grown up around.

Death Parade is an anime that I love because it’s an exploration of people’s choices and how they see themselves, and how they see people they’re in relationships with—and not to give away too much of what the show is about, but it ends up being this interesting exploration of how quickly you remember everything that you can forget at your moment of death and then you start to put your idea of yourself back together. Evangelion is an anime that I reference a lot through the album. It’s literally about trauma and how a character who’s been through a bunch of shit can remake their image of the world into something that is constantly attacking them because they haven’t processed anything. They’re scared of everything and they take every relationship or situation in their life and reframe it as something that’s out to get them, and that’s one of the most honest representations of trauma I’ve ever seen.

Between song titles and other themes, you reference JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure a bunch throughout the album. What was it about JoJo’s that you identify with?

Most power-fantasy anime shows are called Shounen anime. In most Shounen shows, you stick with one character as they get beat up a lot and they start to grow, and they start to find the power within themselves to overcome everything over time. The thing about JoJo’s is that every season, the protagonist changes. Psychologically it became a lot easier for me to imagine this season is about me and then that’s where the song “I’m a JoeStar” comes from. It’s me saying, “Nope, this is now my season. This one is about me and I get to inhabit the characters and imagine the powers I might have.”

I want to preface this question by acknowledging I’m a white dude that doesn’t really watch anime, but I was having a conversation with a colleague who suggested I ask about the experience of enjoying anime as a Black man and seeing certain characters—specifically ones like Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball Z—that many people consider racial stereotypes.

Most anime I watch doesn’t have that. Dragon Ball—the Mr. Popo character is a super-huge problem, and they have to figure out how to address that at some point because it’s bad. It’s a horrible old Black stereotype: super jet-black skin and bright red lips, and it looks horrible. But I also read a lot of comic books, and if you read comic books before the ’90s, there are a lot of depictions of Black characters that are not done with any measure of respect for Black people as individuals. It’s a lot of stereotypes, and those are always upsetting when you encounter them, but you also have to understand the time and space that they were created in. I think it’s up to each individual person how they feel about that. I would say historically, there’s a lot of negotiations you have to have with yourself on whether or not you’re able to enjoy something based on those things, but in modern anime I haven’t really encountered that much at all.

Let’s talk podcasts. Let’s start with What Had Happened Was, where you interviewed the legendary producer Prince Paul about different albums in his discography. It’s such a great in-depth exploration of this piece of hip-hop history that we all knew a little about, but to hear his perspective has been phenomenal. How did it come about?

The original seed of the idea was me and Prince Paul were going to try to do a podcast where we discussed the underground portions of huge rappers’ careers. So like the time when Eminem was underground. The time when Drake was bubbling, doing underground shit. Jay-Z. It ended up not really coming together, so then I had the idea where I could just talk to Paul every week. He’s got so many stories because we were hanging around each other and he would say these offhand things and I’d be like, “What are you talking about? What do you mean?”

He started talking about the time he was trying to form a union at Def Jam with the rappers and I went, “What the fuck do you mean you were trying to start a union at Def Jam?” So much stuff like that would come up, and I’d be like, “This is a podcast.” We were able to do a demo of the show with a bigger podcast network, and we made the Native Tongues episode. They felt like they couldn’t sell it to their advertisers, so the rights reverted back to me.

They couldn’t sell this?

As a person who’s about to turn 40 and who has been dealing with the entertainment industry for a while, I’m super over having to explain to people why some shit is valuable when I know it’s valuable. I’m so tired of trying to sell ideas that I know people will fuck with into a room full of people who have no idea what I’m talking about.

We talked about anime as a storytelling medium, but do you think podcasts might be a better storytelling medium than, say, a book for something like Paul’s history?

I don’t know about better. I think in terms of our modern society it’s probably more apt in terms of how people consume. I think it’s a lot easier to ask somebody to press play on a podcast or on a YouTube clip of a podcast than it is to ask them to read a chapter of a book. As a society we’ve arrived there. I wouldn’t have said that five, six years ago necessarily.

It’s wild to me that I can pull up a podcast and listen to Paul talk for an hour about 3 Feet High and Rising, but I can’t listen to 3 Feet High and Rising anywhere.

Criminal. I’m currently taping Season 2 right now with a person I’m not ready to announce yet, but there’s a similar situation there. I’m asking him about this project that means so much to me and I can’t immediately press play on Spotify here.

Did he have any trepidation telling these stories? Like the Biggie story from the Prince Among Thieves episode was amazing.

It was so incredible that I had him tell it again at the end of the season. There was only one thing that he wanted cut out. Other than that, he was perfectly fine talking about everything. But what I’ve noticed with him and with the person I’m interviewing right now, these super prolific dudes who do all these different projects, part of how they’re able to do that is they don’t think about the past a lot. They always move forward.

Who would your dream guest be for a third season?

Q-Tip. I would love to pick his brain about all of his shit.

I figured Kool Keith would make for a good pod but that would be a totally different experience.

It would be, but I think I’m afraid of Kool Keith. I end up poking around in people’s minds and hearts with these things, man. I’ve got to really feel safe.

You’ve been releasing music for 10 years. You’ve been involved in music for longer than that. Did you relate to any parts of Paul’s story?

I was mostly in awe of it because of how different everything was. The scale is so different. If there’s anything I resonated with, it was him starting out with Stetsasonic and feeling like he had ideas that nobody really wanted to fuck with and how that made him want to make something different. That’s how he ended up working with De La Soul, and then from that really going into working on Psychoanalysis and Prince Among Thieves and the weird, more whimsical and ambitious and fantastical ideas.

What are you trying to do with Stony Island Audio, your podcast network?

Trying to really put hip-hop stories on a pedestal. I want to document people’s stories—everybody from people who make classic rap to people who are doing independent rap today. So much thought goes into this stuff and people’s journeys are so deep and very little of that shit gets into your press release about your new album, if you even manage to get a press release. I want to fuck with writers a lot too so I have a show called Dad Bod Rap Pod that is mostly rap from the journalist perspective. These are people who understand the stories behind this stuff and understand how brilliant some of these creators are and really are talking about the work in a way that unpacks that.

And you’ve got Can’t Knock the Shuffle with Sean Kantrowitz.

It’s another version of the same thing, where he’s sitting with an artist and shuffling through seven songs from their catalog—a random shuffle—and he interviews them about the songs. It opens up the conversation into all of these different projects and gets in tune with how they feel about these songs that they may not have heard in years. To me that’s a great way to crack that same problem of: How do we get the stories behind the music? How do we get the mind of the creator and get that opened up and put out there more?

I caught a couple of clips from the livestream record release show you hosted on the day the album dropped. How was that experience?

That felt nice, but part of the reason it felt nice is because we were able to put 15 people in the audience and so I was able to perform for some human beings and I hadn’t been able to do that since March. I did go on a tour with Hannibal Burress where we did drive-ins, but that was weird and awkward.

What’s specifically weird about drive-in shows?

The problem with this pandemic shit: Performing at home sucks. You put so much energy out and get nothing back. There’s no way to get feedback, which is such an important part of the live process. Doing these drive-in shows was better than that because there were humans that were there, and if you asked them to make noise, they would try. Even though they were far away you could hear something. That was better than performing at home, but it’s still such a far cry from performing in front of an audience where you can see them in their eyes and hear them in their mouths and their hands. I think it got good overall, but I think it was always going to be weird for me, especially because these are comedy crowds and I’m doing music. That’s always a little bit of a challenge.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up “The Black Mirror Episode.” First: It was scarier than any episode of Black Mirror. But also, it’s a deeply personal song that also ends up feeling farcical. How do you balance that?

I needed to make myself laugh. My go-to is to take a situation that has some nugget of realism and then use absurdity to stretch it wide. Of course it wasn’t one episode of a show that took my marriage down, but we had a very fucking uncomfortable night when we wanted to put on some TV for escapism, and it threw all our shit back in our face. To me, writing a song about that was deeply fucking satisfying.

I know you won’t say which episode it was about, but can you say a few episodes that it wasn’t?

It was not the one about the Amazon murder dogs. It was not the one about the American Idol show with the exercise bikes and shit, and it was not the one where the prime minister had sex with a pig.

I was hoping you were going to say that it wasn’t that one.