But then, you see, you do the flip: in giving away the control–you’ve got it.
If the rap game is a high school, then Atlanta is the party/jock clique, New York is the artsy cool kids, and Los Angeles is the drama/choir nerds. I’ll let you suss out for yourself which one I identify with, but just to bolster the framework for a second, what supports this more than the jazz fusion congregation recently assembled for To Pimp A Butterfly? Obviously, it’s not a perfect metaphor–nothing is–but my main point is that there’s a vibrant, still somewhat unappreciated and underrated independent rap scene blossoming in LA that leans toward heady intellectualism and unpolished goofiness. It fucking rules. I almost hope it doesn’t get huge like it inevitably will–probably even this year based off Open Mike Eagle’s newest album Hella Personal Film Festival.
While we’re here, seriously, did anyone besides me and Sheldon listen to Milo’s practically perfect So The Flies Don’t Come last year?? It is easily one of the best rap records of the year. I still listen to it at least once a week. Mike and Milo are old friends, from a previous endeavor Hellfyre Club, a former LA rap collective. The gist is that a group of wildly inventive and hilarious rappers are doing some incredible work and you should pay attention to them. At the helm of that scene is Open Mike Eagle, a rapper and comedian who manages to be prolific, diverse and consistent–a hard trifecta to nail.
Last year he released both an EP of his own called A Special Episode Of and Time & Materials as Cavanaugh (with Chicago art-rapper Serengeti). His newest, Hella Personal Film Festival, is a collaborative album with Paul White and is out only a couple months later, though its release falls in 2016. Since it’s only March, I’d be willing to bet he has more up his sleeve for us this year, too. Film Festival comes out Friday and you can pre-order it already via Bandcamp. You should. I’ve heard his other stuff and liked it–plus Hellfyre is always reliably solid–but this is my favorite thing from him yet. Credit where credit is due, the production White provides here is impeccable; whispery funk and soul samples get threaded through VCR fuzz and wobbly synths until they’re perfect foils for Mike’s loony, incisive lyrics. Imagine Phil Collins provided a soundtrack for an elastic-voiced comedian with killer wordplay skills, and you’ve got Hella Personal Film Festival.
Opener “Admitting The Endorphin Addiction” manages to be both bitter and bright, nicking some funk to muse through addictions of various kinds and how they come to us–via pill, via phone, via music. “Rap music has ruined me, I always want to loop my favorite part,” he sings, and in one of those delicious ironic twists, that’s the line I keep having the urge to play back. That, and “staring at my phone wondering how endorphins travel via screens.” This is just one poignant example of the way Mike raps with a particular empathy for himself, his listener, and those around him. A former student of psychology, Mike easily ties glib humor with powerful commentary on the human condition. “Once I discovered that there was a field where people studied other people and how they work, I was instantly attracted to it,” he said late last year, and his interest in the web of social interaction expands here on tracks like “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” which plays most heavily on the album title and eviscerates the double standard that is being black in public. On the brief blip of “Insecurity” he further employs a heavenly ‘70s sample to encourage truth and honesty in relationships–in any other hands this would be corny, but Mike seems to banish the concept from his universe.
“Check To Check” makes that penniless period before your next direct deposit hits sound almost enjoyable (Spoiler: it’s not), then threads it back to the song’s theme–we can’t stop checking our goddamn phones. To cap it off, a domineering Siri gets on the horn and asserts her control over mankind, more Ex Machina than Her, but the hyperbolic dark humor fades out, and it’s Mike who keeps going. So perhaps she’s wrong. This is the kind of tongue-in-cheek, keen commentary that Mike has always been interested in delivering, and it feels honed to point that’s fine, but not so fine it doesn’t leave room for unfinished edges and the funny raggedness that typifies his style. There’s breadth and depth across Hella Personal Film Festival that can feel rare in hip-hop (even if it’s isn’t). It’s there in droves on “I Went Outside Today,” where he clowns Lena Dunham and identifies with font politics over whispered, woozy production, then gives way to a quick-as-fuck flow from the very welcome guest Aesop Rock, who forward recipes, assassinates a bat, and take cues from the biosphere and graveyards with equal gravity.
I could keep going, but at this point I’m just dismantling the tropes in my favorite songs, trying to find a better way to talk about the record than the narrator himself. There isn’t one–each track here deserves its own paragraph, but I’d rather you listen and draw your own connections. I will say, “Drunk Dreaming” manages to capture the loopy skip-hop of a giddy drunk brain with piteous grace. A sharp current of vulnerability courses underneath each songs–even “Dang Is Invincible”–erasing any gulf between the listener and Mike; on Hella Personal Film Festival, he is here with us from anxiety, to blackout to hangover. But he wouldn’t leave us hanging, either. “Reprieve” finishes what “Admitting The Endorphin Addiction” started, not tying things up in a bow, but delving into how deep the darkness really goes, how much strength it takes to stand up to the crushing racism embedded in our country’s DNA. It’s a dark moment, but one that makes the light-hearted ones that came before feel that much more precious–a closing credit that leaves you itching for a sequel. Luckily, Mike’s output indicates we’ll get something new pretty quickly. Keep this record on loop and check your phone for endorphin updates until then.
Hella Personal Film Festival is out 3/25. Get it here.