December 2, 2023

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Open Mike Eagle: Component System With the Auto Reverse Album Review

For music fans of a certain age, the home stereo was more than just a convenient way to listen to music: It was a recording studio, a pressing plant, and a portal to other worlds. All-in-one component systems, the affordable stereos that contained all the pieces of a hi-fi system in one compact black box—an amplifier, AM/FM tuner, CD player, dual-cassette deck, and often an equalizer—minted myriad amateur engineers in the ‘90s, democratizing access to the tools needed to record, duplicate, and listen to mixtapes.

As a kid, the rapper Open Mike Eagle used one of those component systems to craft mixtapes spliced together from radio recordings. Replete with commercials and DJ monologues woven between his favorite songs, the tapes were the soundtrack of his youth, the score for countless bus rides across Chicago’s South Side. It was one of those tapes, cobbled together from broadcasts on the local college radio station WHPK Chicago, that inspired Eagle’s latest LP, Component System with the Auto-Reverse. The record is a nostalgic trip through the rapper’s musical genesis and an exploration of the psyche of an artist who recently lost his wife, his job, and some of his closest friends. If 2020’s Anime, Trauma, and Divorce was an unflinching examination of all that he’d lost, this album answers the question of what remains.

In rediscovering his old mixtapes, Eagle finds that he’s the same man he’s always been: a whip-smart comic with acerbic wit, a “grown man with toddler habits” (a quality that he gets from his father), and an old school hip-hop head who can rap his butt off, but can’t dance. He has long written from a comedian’s POV, and on this album, he once again leverages a bittersweet sense of humor to soothe his painful awareness of the world’s absurdity. His cleverness requires a certain degree of pop culture literacy, and some of his references—like 2Pac’s curious collaboration with smooth, sensitive ‘90s R&B crooner Jon B—might feel ancient to a zoomer. But these are the bars of a middle-aged man who still shares memes (“Who Among Us is mega sus?” he asks on “i’ll fight you”); they are tightly packed nerd raps from a dad who’s quick-witted enough to keep up with his adolescent son.

The songs here reflect both his embrace of Los Angeles (“crenshaw and homeland”) and his Chicago roots (“79th and stony island”); after college, the rapper left his hometown and has since toiled in the headier spaces of L.A.’s hip-hop underground. There is also plenty of room for poignant introspection (“the song with the secret name”) and unabashed fandom of hip-hop greats (“for DOOM”). His choice of collaborators feels less like clout-boosting streaming bait and more like homies who can rap well, which makes for a laid-back cipher vibe that reveals the album’s raw but carefully considered aesthetic. Its most frequent guests are Video Dave and Still Rift, two rappers with backpacker flows and few credits that don’t involve Eagle. But even when he operates with more well-known entities like New York’s acid-tongued duo Armand Hammer, he shows he can coalesce disparate styles.

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