“Some songs [are] just more for the headphones,” raps a claymation Open Mike Eagle from a cotton ball cloud in his 2018 video for “Microfiche.” The track is Mike’s airy and meditative response to everything stressing him out, from his growing potbelly to Kaepernick’s mistreatment in the NFL. Open Mike Eagle coined the term Art Rap in the 2000s to describe his unique style of rapping, telling L.A. Weekly, “You can’t call everything ‘Hip-Hop.’ I was listening to rock music, and it struck me that a lot of the rock I liked was called ‘art rock.’ I started wondering why they had a genre where they can do whatever the fuck they want to do, and rappers are scorned if they don’t have enough machismo.”
So Art Rap is to Hip-Hop what Art Rock is to rock n’ roll – that much is clear. But what does Art Rock entail? Like any music genre, it’s hard to pin down, and the definition changes based on who you ask. Critics might call the genre pretentious and boringly esoteric, while fans would describe it as boundary-pushing and avant-garde. Either way you spin it, Art Rock means elevating Rock n’ Roll to high art, and treating it as something that can be analyzed and investigated as deeply as any work in the MOMA. Noel Murray from The AV Club states that, in the seventies, the “Art” descriptor typically meant something “either aggressively avant-garde or pretentiously progressive.” This genre was pioneered by boundary-pushing albums like The Beatles’ “Revolver,”and The Velvet Underground’s “Clash Music.” Its popularity peaked in the 1970’s with artists like Queen and King Crimson, which led to artists like David Bowie blending the genre’s unique songwriting approach with a pop-heavy musical style. In the year 1990, one of the genre’s most iconic groups, They Might Be Giants, released “Flood,” their biggest album ever. It’s no coincidence that in his “Over, Under” video with Pitchfork, Open Mike Eagle called They Might Be Giants “the best band of all time,” saying they’re “better than The Stones, [and] better than The Beatles.” Open Mike Eagle’s admiration for this group illustrates the relationship between the two “Art” genres – Art Rock is the aging rocker uncle to the star of this article, Art Rap.
An anti-mainstream attitude is what defines the genre. At its core, art rap is poetic, esoteric, and experimental. The creators of this music have been freed from the restrictions of the mainstream by their indifference to appealing to a widespread audience. This allows for tracks like “Homemade Mummy,” veteran rapper Aesop Rock’s guide to mummifying a cat and what one can learn from that process, or “Folk-Metaphysics,” relative young-blood Milo dreamily muttering a grocery list of how he wants to improve himself. These songs also show the self-examination prevalent in this genre. The artists are vulnerable, open, even self-deprecating – traits which lead to genuine and earnest tracks. Art Rap songs are often deeply conceptual, funny, outlandish, or some combination of the three. The only cardinal sin for art rappers is unoriginality.
In a rap scene where lyricism can sometimes take a backseat to booming kick drums and snapping snares, where good songs are made by an artist’s flow and the overall production of the track more so than by the words spoken, art rap offers a contrast. With the genre’s focus on originality, art rappers rely heavily on their own writing voice and shy away from more comfortable topics and styles. In his song “Check to Check,” Open Mike cheekily riffs on his smartphone addiction, exemplifying the “anti-flex” often exhibited by rappers in this genre: “Battery getting low, but it’s not quite out yet/ So check, I’m in ya house now checkin’ for outlets/ I need to use maps ‘cause I don’t know the route yet/ I need to see an email, I don’t know when the soundcheck.” Mike casually works the word “check” into his verses and hooks a whopping 54 times, while an ever-changing beat grooves behind each bar.
Open Mike Eagle also has a tendency to get political with his music – not exactly the most radical thing in Hip-Hop. But compare Eminem’s anti-trump freestyle to one of Open Mike’s tracks: Eminem takes an explosive, direct approach, rapping “Racism’s the only thing he’s fantastic for / ‘Cause that’s how he gets his fucking rocks off and he’s orange / Yeah, sick tan.” Open Mike has a more subdued anger on “My Auntie’s Building,” a song about Chicago demolishing homes in the projects: “It was people there and kids there / And drug dealers and church folk / And they hit that shit with a wrecking ball so hard / Thought the whole earth broke.” The warping, eerie, and distorted production on this song underscores Mike’s mostly-calm delivery to accentuate his barely-held back rage. His poetic lyrics rip through the music like pencil pressed too hard to a page. It’s abrasive, raw, and above all, real. It’s almost tough to listen to. The same traits that emphasize the emotion behind this song (and therefore elevate it to the next level) prevent it from ever being a widespread hit – and that’s okay. As Open Mike said in a 2017 interview with Noisey, “[I am] a rapper that exists outside of most parts of the rap conversation and machine. My products aren’t put through that machine, so they don’t reach the same amount of people—and because of that I don’t have the pressure to do that either, and I have the ability to indulge all of my own whims sonically. Which kind of doubles down on my own being outside of that.”
Art Rap will probably never get played on the radio. If you put Art Rap on at a party you will lose your aux privileges. Trying to get your friends to listen to Art Rap without sounding pretentious is nigh-impossible. But after countless top 40 hits exploring the same few concepts in similar ways, it’s nice to kick back with a few tunes from dudes who do it their own way. Grab your Airpods, Sennheisers, Beats, or any other weapon of choice, and listen to some songs made just for the headphones.