Over the past seven years and change, during which he has released five LPs, a handful of EPs, and delivered a slew of features on tracks by a veritable who’s-who list of underground hip hop luminaries, Michael W. Eagle II, aka Open Mike Eagle, has established himself as indie rap’s pre-eminent social critic, a bona fide rap trope deconstructionist, and one of the funniest emcees in the game. On his latest full length, Michael Eagle dials back the quippy humour that has characterised much of his past work to deliver a by turns poetically nostalgic and seethingly disillusioned elegy for the Robert Taylor Homes, which were built in the 60s, became a hotbed for narcotics, violent crime and perpetual poverty, and were eventually torn down in their entirety in 2007. Even before they were displaced by demolition, the housing project’s tens of thousands of residents were already ignored and forgotten. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is an exercise in remembering those residents and their lives in the projects, as well as a pointed commentary on the black experience in contemporary America. If you needed the extra nudge, the album cover by Mckay Felt makes the analogy between buildings and people explicit.

So, a noble concept for an album, for sure. But this is a hip hop album, not a sociology thesis, so Open Mike Eagle’s intentions would be for naught if he didn’t also deliver the goods, musically and lyrically. Fortunately, the conceptual nature of the project appears to have provided Eagle with a sense of focus that has perhaps been lacking on his intermittently brilliant but patchy previous releases. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a lean 40-minute, 12-track rap record, that maintains sonic coherence despite featuring the work of ten different producers (Exile and Illingsworth each get two credits). Last year’s album-length collaboration with Danny Brown’s partner-in-crime, Paul White, saw the duo only achieve synergy on a handful of tracks; the overall vibe just didn’t suit Eagle as well as the instrumentals on this new release do.

On album opener, ‘Legendary Iron Hood’, Eagle rides a summery beat that brings to mind peak-era People Under The Stairs, and expertly weaves a tale, steeped in comic book lore, about a kid adopting a superhero alter-ego as a coping mechanism against life in the projects. “Ain’t nothing gonna stop me now,” he asserts. And yet, in the next breath he admits that he can’t stop walking because his home’s overrun by roaches. The painful reality outside the safe confines of the titular “iron” hood has a habit of encroaching on the comfortable, escapist fantasy.

‘(How Could Anybody) Feel At Home’ is an early highlight, featuring one of the strongest chorus hooks in Eagle’s discography. The production by DJ Nobody feels like Boards of Canada if they made boom-bap, the synth and flute lines combining to create a sense of alien domesticity that characterises the Scottish IDM duo’s work. It’s a fitting soundtrack for a song that details Open Mike Eagle’s observation of the lives of the residents of Robert Taylor Homes: “Everybody’s secrets inspire all of my scenes.” There are shades of Eagle’s background in comedy when he self-deprecatingly dismisses his own verses as “some goofy shit that sounded like a poem.” There are multiple layers and real density to the tracks on this album, and time and time again, Eagle demonstrates his remarkable gift for carefully chosen details and memorable turns of phrase.

Standout tracks abound on the album. On ‘Hymnal’, Sammus delivers an energetic feature that’s heavy on the similes and wordplay. ‘No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt)’ is a hilarious dissection of tough-guy machismo; “I ain't cried since '94 or something,” he has his narrator declare, before going for all-out, meta absurdity by claiming that, “for those of you that's doubting, I take it that far/ I had an asthma attack during the last bar.” The track is rife with telling (and frequently hilarious) character details, and the instrumental rumbles along like DJ Don Cannon and Kanye West’s production on Pusha T’s ‘Numbers on the Boards’. That’s got to be on purpose right? It’s just perfect for this g-rated spin on brag-rap, wherein instead of hittin’ up bitches and poppin’ caps in n-words (you can tell I’m down with the lingo, right?), Eagle is whacking his thumb with a hammer and staying asleep through airplane turbulence. Funny as it is, though, there’s an emotional truth here: you gots to be a man’s man and hide your vulnerability if you want to get by. The jokes are in service of that truth, not just a punchline.

‘Happy Wasteland Day’ decries the normalisation of national trauma, pleading for just one day without violence or fear, one day with no gunshots, bombs, sirens or lights. The track also sees Eagle cast a few stones in the POTUS’ direction:
“Say fuck the king til that asshole die,
Fuck the king, no command, no chief,
Since the man was crowned we ain't had no sleep.”

On ‘Daydreaming in the Projects’, Illingsworth delivers a beat that trips over itself whilst chiptune synths evoke images of pixelated side-scrolling platform games. The song is a dedication to ghetto children in the projects around the world alternately writing codewords, fighting dragons, hacking networks, splicing cable and solving problems. Smooth, plaintive horns, reminiscent of Broken Social Scene’s softest moments, usher in the chorus. It’s a lovely track, with one of Eagle’s more endearing vocal performances. It also features an amusing tangent into the conflicting arguments of mayonnaise people and mustard people (spoilers: French can’t be trusted, and eggs is all busted).

Standing at the centre of the album is ‘Brick Body Complex’, which has its companion piece in the record’s closing track, ‘My Auntie’s Building’. The former sees Eagle rapping from the perspective of one of the Robert Taylor Homes buildings and is probably one of the most confrontational tracks in his oeuvre. Over a pseudo-trap instrumental, Eagle gets about as het up as he can. He’s always traded in a delivery I would classify as “laidback anxiety” and it’s served him well. I would, however, argue that this track required a more fired-up performance. Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get on ‘My Auntie’s Building’, which rails against the destruction of the housing project’s buildings and against the double standards at the heart of American governance (“They say America fights fair/ But they won't demolish your timeshare”). It’s a stunning, albeit too brief, track that gets engulfed in static noise as Eagle repeatedly intones, “that’s the sound of them tearing my body to the ground.”

In between those thematically central tracks, we get ‘TLDR (Smithing)’ which features Eagle in hyper- quotable mode over what sounds like a muffled circus barrel organ. It feels like a sequel to last year’s ‘Check to Check’, and is a welcome change of pace as it ups the tempo and lightens the mood somewhat thanks to an endless stream of witty one-liners. ‘Breezeway Ritual’ and ‘Wedding Ghosts’ are a couple of sonically interesting yet fairly impenetrable pieces that definitely live up to the art-rap label, but don’t quite stick in the memory the way the rest of the album does. The former does however include some devastatingly succinct lines about family’s clamming up around social workers and not admitting to problems for fear of children being taken into care.

Throughout Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, it’s Eagle’s literary gifts that leap out at you. His words have always outshone his technical chops, but to his credit he does try to mix up his flow here and there (that closing track 'My Auntie's Building', particularly, is revelatory). But he has a comfort zone, and, to be fair to him, if it means he can deliver a track as disarmingly charming as obvious first single choice, ‘95 Radios’, then who am I to quibble? Eagle is not a showy rapper, and Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is the very definition of a slow burner. It lacks a track as instantly iconic as ‘Doug Stamper’ off Dark Comedy, but it reveals its layers and details gradually. It serves both as a poignant monument to a community as well as an indictment of how the US government fails African-Americans. Overall, it makes a strong case for itself as Eagle’s most consistently impressive album yet.