By Gabe Sherman
Open Mike Eagle may have written this album for himself, but many others will recognize themselves somewhere in his words and in his pain.
“I work in fucking metaphor to protect myself from people’s bullshit,” Open Mike Eagle proclaimed during a “live emotional processing event” livestream on October 16. Critics have long respected the rapper for his honesty and storytelling, but in a recent interview with the New York Times he admitted that “every album, there have been three or four songs I’ve ended up pulling because they were too personal. The dark stuff is always hidden out of view.” His new disc, Anime, Trauma, and Divorce, sheds light on what’s been festering in the shade. Eagle suffered a number of setbacks last year and, at the urging of his therapist, he decided to write about what he was feeling.
Before it became about digging into his trauma and divorce, this album was supposed to be about anime. “The original thesis was, Black people need anime the most. A lot of anime is power fantasy stuff. I was about to connect the struggles of marginalized people to these power fantasies,” Eagle said. “I’m a Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)” epitomizes his initial approach. According to the rapper, the song reflects “a deep need to find an external source of strength.” On it, Open Mike envisions himself as a protagonist of the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. “Death Parade” (a reference to the anime series Death Parade, where souls are judged for possible reincarnation) gives us Eagle singing — softly, over a looping, reversed vocal sample — about a cycle of trauma: “Should’ve been cool/But dude got screwed up/’Cause shit got burned up/So he fucked her up/Then she turned big/I got chewed up/That shit fucked me up/So imma fuck you up.” The time-bent beat makes it feel as if Eagle is peering back and watching trauma perpetuate itself through generations, eventually reaching him and his descendants. Here, as elsewhere on the album, he initially balances calm analysis with raw emotions that release suddenly and sporadically.
Open Mike refuses to publicly share the specifics of the trauma he alludes to in the album’s title — “It’s like some real fucked up shit that I went through as a kid that I’m not gonna talk about,” he said during the livestream- – although he has acknowledged that it’s “the trauma that’s underneath it all.” But that doesn’t mean Eagle is holding back. He cautiously doles out the details of his life, revealing only as much as he needs to be understood. His lyrics are candid, his delivery intensely vulnerable and emotional. On “The Black Mirror Episode,” for instance, the anguish in his yelps and wails is visceral. Eagle also deploys comic relief to leaven some of the pain. His jokes are funny while they also help make his depressing observations more digestible. On “Headass (Idiot Shinji)” (another anime reference), Open Mike and a featured Video Dave use the song to announce to the world that they are very much headasses. “My life got easier once I realized that I am a headass,” Eagle recently tweeted. His verse begins with a blunt observation: “It ain’t a secret, I overthink it/I over-analyze and tweak it, ’cause that’s my weakness.” By the end of the verse he’s cracking jokes: “I need that shield, it’s getting chilly and there’s shrinkage/A perfect time to rhyme with Peter Dinklage.” But during the chorus he continues to talk to himself in the background, asking himself rhetorically, “Why am I like this?” It’s an earnest, cutting observation, sharpened by the joke that led him down this line of questioning in the first place.
In the middle of the album, Open Mike pulls back the curtain on recent challenges in his life. “Everything Ends Last Year” and “The Black Mirror Episode” detail the cancellation of his Comedy Central show The New Negroes and his divorce from his wife. “Everything” is gentle, filled with acoustic guitar strums and soft, dark keys. “It’s October and I’m tired,” he raps — it’s a simple thought many of us relate to right now. The production on “Black Mirror” is even more dystopian and abrasive, with Eagle shouting as if from the void or an abyss: “Black Mirror Episode ruined my marriage!”
Mostly, though, Open Mike turns his focus inward, examining how he is processing events rather than reliving the events themselves. Sometimes he achieves a tempered optimism, as on “Sweatpants Spiderman.” There, Eagle grapples with the possibilities of the future: “Maybe go where I couldn’t, maybe finally Brooklyn.” He also ponders the effects of age as he creeps toward 40, claiming that he “started doing more pushups, back pain when I look up” and referencing his “dad bod like my father.” On “Edge of New Clothes,” he explores the same issues of bodily change from a more bitter, metaphorical perspective. “I strained my achilles tryna leap sure-footedly,” he says with his signature dry wit – it’s not hard to see why Open Mike had a show on Comedy Central.
Sometimes, Open Mike is just trying to make sense of it all. On “Wtf Is Self Care”(maybe the album’s best song) he attempts to practice self-care in many ways, looking for one that might work well for him: flowery smells fail because of his allergies, kelp smoothies sound completely disgusting, and seeing what his body needs leads him to “a lot of weed.” But he doesn’t keep the satirical wall up the whole time. At one point, Open Mike insists that self-care is “like journaling, writing shit that feels nurturing/I tried it out and found pain I was circling/And started crying so hard I was gurgling.” His voice softens at the end of the song, and he raps, “They said don’t smoke ’til you veg out, so I pulled all my dreads out.”
The last song on the album, “Fifteen Twenty Feet Ocean Nah – Live from the Joco Cruise,” is one of two that feature Open Eagle’s young son, Asa (he also lends his vocals to the chorus of “Asa’s Bop”). The rapper wrote it after a bad family snorkeling experience; he tweeted about the track that “15-20ft ocean is on here because it legitimately makes me happy. me and my son wrote the hook and made up the lyrics that day about an awful thing that happened the day before. its great that he didnt need a therapist to tell him to rap about his trauma.” Even “Little A$e,” as his son is credited, shows flashes of lyrical talent. My favorite line of his: “It’s crazy like sharks in the park, that’s crazy like John Starks.” Solid imagery? Check. ’90s Knicks reference? Also check.
At his live show, Open Mike Eagle expressed some doubts about releasing Anime, Trauma, and Divorce, claiming that this would be the last time he would release such a personal album. And who could blame him? Fans might feel it brings them closer to the artist, but dealing with emotional wounds has its personal costs for a performer. Of course, Eagle’s under no obligation to become so intimate about his life ever again. But this album isn’t really just about him. By dramatizing his healing so nakedly — drawing on memories, breakthroughs, self-doubt, and setbacks –– he provides a valuable roadmap for others who are looking for a way forward, to grow beyond their confusion and pain.
Gabriel Sherman is a student and writer from Brookline, MA, currently studying history at Pitzer College.