Image via Open Mike Eagle/Instagram

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Matthew Ritchie‘s fatal flaw is that he loves Tenet far more than Inception.

Achieving greatness can be a trap. It’s frustrating. Prior success puts limits on the music that an artist creates in the form of unnecessary expectations of what a project should sound or feel like. People crave the stability of continuity in the media they consume: Whether they admit it or not, they seek the familiarity of the previous release or past season. It’s comfortable and easy, which is what people want more often than not. On the other side, the creative side, Open Mike Eagle recognizes the effect of that pressure. His 2020 album Anime, Trauma and Divorce was a confessional masterpiece. Created during a period of time when his television show “The New Negroes” was canceled and his marriage with his wife of 14 years ended, the album is a raw, painstaking exhibition of the Chicago rapper’s internal and external turmoil. With his insecurities, fears, and failures completely on display, delivered with startling precision and a deft touch, the album arrives as an exhausting therapy session, for both Mike Eagle and the listener. Much of Anime, Trauma and Divorce‘s beauty is attached to its honesty.

But it’s quite unfair to expect an artist to return to such a deep, dark place on consecutive projects. That level of excavation Mike Eagle’s latest release, Component System With The Auto Reverse, thematically closes the door on the outwardly raw, spiritually taxing era that garnered critical acclaim and adoration from his fans. His latest 14-track project wants to be considered a quintessential mixtape, both in spirit and in structure. It’s an abandonment of the expectations of fulfilling a singular thesis, or the idea that tracks have to feed into each other, that they have to be listened to in a certain sequence. For Mike Eagle, producing a seemingly loosely related selection of songs (a la the Hip Hop All-Star tapes that he would record and collect beginning in 1996), was a necessary next step for his artistry. It represented freedom and balance, fundamentally changing the way he’s trying to communicate his messages.

That doesn’t mean that Component System With The Auto Reverse is any less dense or technically complex than his previous albums, it just arrives in a different form. Hidden in subtext and tone, Mike Eagle creates an enthralling soundtrack for the emotions and anxieties that arose during the height of the lockdown. Fueled by production from the deep minds of Madlib, Diamond D, and Quelle Chris, it was forged in the midst of Los Angeles losing its collective mind, so it’s natural for chaos to seep into the project’s construction: The garbled-radio loops of “I Retired Then I Changed My Mind” and his muffled delivery on “Peak Lockdown Raps” fit neatly into the project’s heightened entropy. All the while, it features some of his best writing and rapping, manipulating his rhyme scheme and elongating his cadence at will to put on an exhibition of skill that few could hope to recreate. On the second track and de facto opener “TDK Scribbled Intro,” Mike Eagle sneaks in the mixtape’s thesis statement: “Every album is a little collection of pieces of yesterday/I don’t always have the words for the feelings, so I decided to make you a tape,” he speaks plainly as the simple drumbeat fades into the distance.

His emotions are threaded into the fabric of Component System With The Auto Reverse, protected by purposeful randomness. The only markers are tone, production, and singular moments where his lyrics pierce the hearts of the listener. It’s up to you to find the answers yourself, you just have to focus. I spoke with Mike about his own reasons and inspiration for making this in the spirit of a tape, how it feels to move past an album like Anime, Trauma and Divorce, making music in a responsive way and how he’s protecting his mental energy while creating emotional projects of this magnitude.

First off, how are you doing? How you been recently?

Open Mike Eagle: Um, I would say mostly good. I don’t have anything outright to complain about. I’m just not as rich as I should be. I think most of my problems stem from that.

Those people who say money doesn’t buy happiness are liars.

Open Mike Eagle: Well, you know, money gives you options to deal with your unhappiness. If you don’t have money, then there are much fewer options to combat your unhappiness.

Getting into Component System With The Auto Reverse, what’s the motivation behind calling this a tape rather than an album?

Open Mike Eagle: Just because spiritually it’s informed by tapes, more than how it is informed by how I would traditionally put an album together. And I think that if, coming into it, what a person thinks about a tape helps the experience to them.

To you, what’s the difference between the two?

Open Mike Eagle: Well, I do think it’s a full project. But I might be trying to communicate something without actually saying it. I might be trying to communicate feelings without actually saying it. I might be putting songs that feel like things rather than saying how I’m feeling directly. It’s meant to be an enjoyable listen but also like, “huh, what message might he be trying to communicate with this song or sequence of songs?” So, it’s sort of that dual processing when it comes to a tape.

Do you feel that this tape you’ve created captures that energy?

Open Mike Eagle: I feel like it does. It definitely hints at it and is specifically like, you know, days walking to school in the late fall and Chicago with a heavy coat on trying to protect myself from the wind. With one of these tapes in my Walkman: My battery’s dying a little bit so like the music’s kind of slowing down and getting woozy, I’m trying to conserve the battery. Like that feeling, that weight, that heft, that wind. I feel like those elements are in here. It can never be the same because I’m making all the music. So like, you know, the skeleton of this is one of those old tapes but the flesh and the bones are just gonna – it’s gonna be very different because it’s me making all the music, but I think that the colors are there. I think that the weight and in the field there, which is what I’m ultimately going for.

Do you have a favorite moment from this creative process?

Open Mike Eagle: Oh, well, you know what I’d have to say- When I’ve made songs with Diamond D. That was my favorite part. Like that was the highlight. For me it was linking with him, putting those songs together with him. And even having him out here to make some input on you know, like that lesson. And he’s been one of my rap heroes for many, many years. I found that part most exciting, most rewarding, most fulfilling.

Even just sitting down with him to hear beats he made for me, it’s like, what? That doesn’t even make sense. You know, I have to treat it as a testament to how far I’ve come, you know, as an artist and as a rap fan, but like, there’s clips of tapes on an album, where this DJ is talking and in some of those same tapes, those same hosts, there’s a couple of instances where for almost no reason, they start going on about Diamond D. And this is 1996. It’s crazy to think that all these real years later, I would go from somebody listening to those tapes, trying to hear the music, that this is my lifeblood – that I would end up working with.

This is a new period for you. How does it feel to move on from your last album Anime, Trauma and Divorce, which was rooted in catharsis and confession, into a different type of project?

Open Mike Eagle: It feels great [laughs]. It feels perfectly suited for interaction with the outside world. It feels nice and protected. You know, I’m wearing armor on this one, and I think I need armor for dealing with the world. I don’t think I’m the type of person who has the constitution to engage in society in a raw dog manner like that. So, I have my protection this time. And to me that feels way more comfortable.

Definitely, because an album like that, first of all, is brave. Do you even believe it’s possible to fully move on from an album like that, or is that level of reflection stuck with you as you continue to create?

Open Mike Eagle: Well, I think it’s good for letting people know that emotionally, I exist. I was treating my emotions as if they didn’t exist, and I think that gave people a little bit of an inaccurate impression of who I am as a person. So I do think that it’s good that I did that. That I let people know that I have problems. But I think it’s just better for me as an artist not to dwell or live in that too much. There are ways for me to address my issues by writing about emotion and recording songs about emotion. But putting them out, might actually make some things worse, depending on what the issue is.

Has writing been a form of salvation or escapism for you?

Open Mike Eagle: I got to say yes, because I feel like writing has been all sorts of things. It’s been a comfort, it’s been an escape. It’s been a habit, it’s been therapeutic. I feel like I’ve had every sort of relationship you could have with writing a rap song.

What sort of state were you in while you were making this tape?

Open Mike Eagle: So, the story of this album, in terms of my headspace while making it, is kind of the story of the pandemic. It’s February 2020, I’m on tour with Brother Ali: I had just moved out of my house and into my apartment on my own. I was in that apartment for like four days and then I went on tour with Brother Ali. We were supposed to be on break for a month before we picked up the East Coast tour. But that month, while we were on tour, like the first COVID case showed up in Washington literally two day after we left. We saw the story developing and while we were on this break in our respective homes, everything shut down.

You know, I had been processing that sh*t that was behind Anime, Trauma and Divorce, but I hadn’t put any of that out yet. So after it came out in 2020, I engaged with all those feelings and did all that processing. So the first song I made for this album is a song called “Peak Pandemic Raps.” That was very indicative of the headspace, the fog, the malaise that I was in during a lot of 2020. During 2020-2021, I lived in this apartment I had, on this corner called Crenshaw & Homeland, which is the name of one of the songs. That corner almost drove me crazy. During the pandemic, that corner was like the epicenter of South LA losing its motherf*cking mind. There was just always noise, chaos, car accidents, shootings. There was this mechanic that I lived right next to, and that mechanic had a dog all day and night. It was just an endless parade of people with mental issues. It was like every hood reaction to the pressures of the pandemic, all outside my window. And yeah, it almost drove me out of my f*cking mind.

That can’t be healthy.

Open Mike Eagle: It wasn’t and a lot of the songs were made in that space. There was just this urgency that I was living in. I just couldn’t really relax where I was living. A lot of the music is based on that too, and kind of how I had to push through that. That pushing led me to really rapping with a sense of urgency.

How do you balance being personal and honest in your lyrics, while protecting your mental energy?

Open Mike Eagle: I think I balance it out by always trying to make sure that I’m saying something that’s entertaining, saying something is novel, saying something like using language to do something interesting. And I think that if that thing, if that actual piece of information is honest in my life or in my mind, I think that’s a good combination. Like I think that I’m using all the parts of my brain to try to come up with something good. And I think the part where I make it interesting- that I think it’s something other people might want to hear? It’s also a little bit protective of whatever raw thought or feeling that informed that thing is.

So I think, you know, I try to write bars that are a combination of raw thoughts, raw feeling, and like, novel word choice, novel arrangements of words. And I think that you know, my attempts to do that, my attempts to make them sonically or literarily interesting, I think is what kind of gives me a little bit of protection. That I’m not just like, seeing a raw thought as is and trying to put it in a way it’s like appealing to people.

What did lockdown do to you as an artist?

Open Mike Eagle: I mean, it stopped me from making sh*t for a while. Maybe because I wasn’t able to move around and have experiences that led into creation. At least for a while, then I kind of found my groove. I had to find different ways to make sh*t, like I started building computers. I needed to make sh*t with my hands. I didn’t feel like I was getting the ingredients to really make music. But then, I started getting with Video Dave and Still RIft, making music with them, really leaned into rapping with friends and exploring craft more. I think I found my way out through that.

You’re not that person to lock themselves into a hole or a creative vacuum to produce something.

Open Mike Eagle: No, I always make music while I’m doing everything else. That’s always the way I’ve been most comfortable doing it. The only time I’ve ever not made music like that was with Serengeti on the Cavanaugh project. We hunkered down there, but other than that, I’m always creating in the midst of my life. With that, the ideas, the whims, and the creative impetus that births songs happen in my day-to-day life. I mine those things.

It’s just easier that way?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, it feels better to make music in a responsive way. It feels better to me. If I try to unplug from everything and put my nose to the grindstone for a couple of weeks, it almost feels like I’m trying to predict life in a way. That’s not satisfying for me. I want to be along for the ride.

Would you say that you love to see your music shift with your evolution as a person?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, exactly. I think it gives me a good way to track growth, track process, and progression. If I’m always making things and I have a strong data set to look at and compare where am I today versus where I am two years ago.

Do you think there are merits to staying in one style or emotion for one project, or is it better to keep moving forward?

Open Mike Eagle: Well, my projects tend to be informed by some central thesis statement. And within that statement, it might be different kinds of energies, or might be the same! I kind of take that on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s best to paint with a solid five-color palette, other times it’s better to be putting together all sorts of different feelings. It just depends on what I’m trying to say.

How does it feel to come out of a very intense personal era to focus on slightly different themes?

Open Mike Eagle: In some ways, it felt exciting because making the album before this was rewarding, but not exciting. I felt very accomplished for having addressed and tried to deal with some of the things I was dealing with, but those were hard lessons to learn, hard lessons to lay out, difficult scenes to paint. Whereas on this one, I think my painting is more about technique. And I hate to keep going back to that metaphor, because making them sounds super “hoity toity.” But I do think that technique and craft, in this instance, are very exciting to me. And to make music in that way is very energizing.

How difficult is it to keep everything feeling new?

Open Mike Eagle: I’ve just listened to so much and I’ve made so much music now that I have the privilege at this point, the knowledge, that nobody else is doing exactly what I do. There’s people who do stuff like what I do and vice versa. But there’s nobody who approaches things exactly the way I do. So if you gave me and other 50 “art rappers” the same writing prompts, we’re all going to have something different.

Just me knowing myself, I don’t have to worry about doing something new. The main thing to pay attention to in other people’s music is the rhyme scheme, because I don’t ever want to use anybody else’s raps. I’m really all about trying to have fresh rhyme schemes, fresh approaches to wordplay. I can look back on my old work now and see when I was trying to sound like other people. But now, I feel like I’m fully formed as an artist. I think that’s what I’ve earned. I’ve made enough music, heard enough music, to say that my style is my style. If somebody was trying to copy me, it’d be easy to tell. My catalog and lane is established: in some sense, you might know what to expect. But that’s why I wanted to change up my approach on this album, because I think there are some things I value in terms of rapping that I wasn’t putting forward.

What are those things that you feel that you’re valuing better?

Open Mike Eagle: I think craft swordsmanship and really valuing my skill set. It’s an ingredient that I’ve always had, but never put forward, because I thought that it was just understood. I wanted do something that was more of an exhibition of rap skill and talent, because I’ve been honing it for 20 years.

What is art rap to you?

Open Mike Eagle: I mean, this is the weird thing about art rap. A lot of media, a lot of people who talk about music used the term, but I don’t think anyone’s really establishing any sort of blueprint for what that means. And in that, like it gets used as a very vague category I feel like and so like, it gets used, but it’s like, I almost want to say it’s not thought about enough. It’s not explored enough. Those boundaries of what makes something art rap or non-art rap. Like I think if we were able to actually build some sort of structure or we’re talking about it like it had more of a definition, would be more useful. You know, I just feel like there’s such a wide umbrella under it and that it like, it stops making sense as a category. Because it doesn’t have any boundaries.

Yeah, and it’s like one of those things nobody will argue against. Nobody’s pushing back against that. So everybody uses the term anyway that they want to see fit, which is good. I just think the result of that is that it doesn’t mean anything interesting. Or, it’s like meant to communicate something that’s not actually being said.

My definition is it’s an obsolete term. That at one point, it meant artistic and aesthetic freedom in rap music that wasn’t viable or present in the mainstream. But now a lot of that aesthetic and artistic freedom is present in the mainstream. And so there is a different thing that happens in independent, more artier rap spaces, but I don’t think art rap is determined or actually communicates what it is. So for right now, art rap is a somewhat lazy thing to call rap music that’s weird. But it could be weird a bunch of different ways and still end up in that category. Like, is Danny Brown art rap? No, no. Bruiser Wolf is out. I don’t know. You know, Armand Hammer, Quelle Chris, you know, like, all these people sound really different from each other, right? So what is the unifying element, you know?

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