Album Review: Open Mike Eagle ‘4NML HSPTL’
Open Mike Eagle’s second official studio album, 2011’s Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, featured the standout single “Nightmares” and helped propel Mike to a new level of fame and success on the indie hip hop circuit. Instead of resting on his laurels after releasing two excellent albums in two years, Mike has continued to work at a frenetic pace. Unlike some artists who try to strike when the iron is hot and end up diluting their rep through half-assed, pandering projects and collaborations, Open Mike continued to improve and release the best music of his life (including 2 killer EP’s) in the months preceding the release of his new album 4NML HSPTL (pronounced Animal Hospital), a full length collaboration with UK producer Awkward. While I’ve always had a great respect for Open Mike Eagle’s unique brand of rap music, I was secretly hoping his recent hot streak was an indicator of something special in the works. 4NML HSPTL is that something special.
Right from the first track “Starz” it becomes obvious that Mike has turned into one of the best pure rappers in the game. Previously known for his vocal experimentation, witty one-liners and concepts, Open Mike Eagle sounds like he really wants to be taken seriously on this album. It still contains all the idiosyncrasies of his earlier work, but there seems to be a level of focus and depth that he hasn’t really attained before. Casually dropping gems like “this is rap for the monks on the 8 paths/ those still getting crunk need a late pass”. His perfected, authoritative flow begs you to hang on every line and take a journey into your own mind.
The concept of the second song “HSPTL” seems to be a central theme to the album. The song’s reflective tone demonstrates how various events in our life shape our decisions and perspectives. Open Mike uses the word hospital in a literal and in a metaphorical sense- “I thought I was responsible, then they brought me to the hospital”. In this chaotically random world, a life changing event is always right around the corner. The hospital represents a place that is an epicenter for those types of events- births, deaths, surgeries, illnesses etc. Everyone has their own “HSPTL”, or eye opening event, and Open Mike Eagle seems intrigued by how these extreme situations and events shape our lives. Mike reflects on how life’s turning points have forced him to reevaluate his relationships with alcohol, his friends and fellow artists, and the world around him. While Mike doesn’t look at his past through rose colored glasses, he accepts the man he has become and is content with his life.
The other half of the album’s title is represented by the song “4NML”. Going even further down the rabbit hole, “4NML” finds Open Mike sounding like A Book of Human Language era Aceyalone as he taps into his animal instincts and considers how much our perception and methods of communication limit our expansive thoughts. The song’s tongue twisting verses are only topped only by its layered, mind-bending chorus- “the truth is your thought and not what you said/ cause language is prison for what’s in your head/ the thought is a mountain of matter/ the word is a shred of what’s in your head, I said/ the truth isn’t guilty or innocence pled/ language is prison for what’s in your head/ the thoughts and the feelings are living, the symbols are dead/ the symbols are simple”. On the 2nd part of the chorus he breaks down human nature even further- “when you’re all alone you are an animal/ the words I’m saying now mean nothing more than meow to an animal”. By making songs like “4NML”, Open Mike Eagle is stepping into that rare territory as an artist where he’s transcending his peers and truly making timeless music. This type of artistic achievement doesn’t happen overnight and is hard to quantify in the modern flavor-of-the-minute climate, but it feels like music that was made for anyone and everyone at the same time.
Making the universal seem personal is one of Open Mike Eagle’s greatest strengths as a rapper and the song “Universe Man” is a great example of that. Throughout the song Open Mike gives advice on how to live a life of simple joy. Mike describes his verses as “advice from a lunatic” who wants you to “cherish the little things”. As always, Mike finds a way to slip his sardonic wit into his lines which give his verses an uncommon depth- “hold head high like the guy on the New Yorker/ though, that guy reminds me of slavery/ I’ll let that inspire me to bravery”. Frequent collaborator Serengeti closes the song with a spectacular verse that works as an ode to optimism and obscurity- “Any place could be great if you have a little grace/ Paris could be boring too, even Vegas in space dog”.
Serengeti may be the standout guest appearance, but everyone Open Mike tabs to appear adds something unique and fits into his concepts perfectly. Megabusive and Finiki McGee both kill it on “Black Clouds” while Has-Lo combines with Open Mike on “Your Back Pack Past”, a comical concept track that sees the MC’s describing how easy it is for boom-bap dinosaurs to ignore their roots and jump on the hot new trend, whether it’s switching to harder drugs or to skinny jeans. Mike’s Hellfyre Club homie Nocando lends two visual verses to the insanely addictive “Free-Writing Exercise” before Mike blacks out at the end of the song- “If I was Johnny Gill I’d be mad at The Weeknd/ I guess shit’s different when you market it to white folks/ I had a hold on my hate for the R&B/ but goddamit the string to my kite broke/ eh…I guess I fucked off my Drake collab/ I’ll just take a bath and watch some more Breaking Bad”. One of the best guest verses comes from Danny Brown on “Cobra Commander”, a bonus song that’s only found on the digital version of 4NML HSPTL. The duo blames all of the world’s problems on GI Joe’s chief nemesis, Cobra Commander. Danny Brown’s verse hilariously details his lack of enthusiasm for his short stint in prison, which is a great contrast to Mike’s profile of Cobra Commander and his various despicable acts.
Throughout Open Mike Eagle’s career, his boundless creativity has made it seem that he could take any number of paths. His music can be many things at the same time. This could be a curse as well as a gift, but he finds a way to bring it all together on 4NML HSPTL. His producer Awkward definitely deserves a lot of credit for the cohesive, focused sound of the album, as the concepts and song aesthetics are all over the place as usual. This is the first album Open Mike has made using one producer, and although Mike and Awkward have collaborated to great effect in the past, having one primary musical collaborator that he’s familiar with has freed up Mike to make music without having to think too much. As different as songs like the playful “One Day” and “Dancebill” are from the meditative “4NML” and “Self Medication Chant”, every song is made with a confidence and zeal that is engaging and even overpowering at times. The understated beat on “The Financial Crisis That Wouldn’t Go Away” put’s Mike’s brilliant deconstruction of the financial crisis in clear view, while still maintaining a musical feel and helping to build a swirling atmosphere. Awkward has a modern production style that allows him to custom build and produce tracks for Mike rather than just giving him a ‘beat’. Awkward’s contributions to “Universe Man”, “4NML”, and “Free-Writing Exercises” particularly stand out, showing off a percussive style that incorporates subtle, three-dimensional sampling and compliments Mike’s nuanced rhyme schemes.
Open Mike Eagle continues to surprise me with his development with each and every release. 4NML HSPTL is one of the best albums I’ve heard in several years and is undoubtedly his finest moment as an artist to this point. While he may have a hard time topping its greatness in the future, there’s no reason to think he’ll have any kind of a drop off. The great ones make it seem effortless and that’s exactly what’s happened with Mike on all of his recent material. Whether Mike would admit it or not, he knows he’s making some special music at the moment and he seems to be enjoying every minute of it. Buy the album on iTunes or via Circle Into Square.
Written by John Bugbee