Alfred Korzybski's great point was essentially this: labels help us define, but also force us to contain. More specifically, our capacity to learn, understand, or interpret is directly correlated to our language and how we choose to use it in our day-to-day communications. Korzybski and his work are of the last century, but that thesis has so much relevance in contemporary discourses as well, whether considering the way we consume and study music or the way we butt heads politically.
South L.A. MC Open Mike Eagle rallies behind the argument in “4NML (Korzybski's Lament)” rapping “language is prison for what's in your head…the word is a shred of what's in your head,” and managing to subtly make the concept a central focus in his maniacal and mental new full-length for Fake Four Inc., 4NML HSPTL. It'd be easy to, at its simplest level, take it as a deep eye rolling toward dumb turns of ghettoizing phrase like “backpack rap,” but, after occupying the HSPTL (hospital) with Mike, the listener learns that the risks of chaotic, carefree linguistics are more dire than simple subgenre stupidity– one runs the risk of detaching from reality entirely.
It's a heavy charge, but Open Mike Eagle handles it with the same oddball humor you'd expect of the Upright Citizen Brigade-affiliated art rapper. After a recycling of Zappa's classic, “Dirty Love,” in the beginning of “Your Back Pack Past,” Mike specifically tackles the odd shame in the once-noble pursuit of becoming a backpacker, sarcastically suggesting to do every trendy, BS thing from heroin to growing a handlebar moustache to superficially separate oneself. It's a highlight of the album that hilariously calls out my entire line of work and implies that our rapid consumption of lovingly labored music, along with an incessant obsession with the ephemeral concept of “context,” is distorting our connection to it entirely, turning what used to be humble, inquisitive fans into fad-attracted, buzzy hipster trash. Sometimes the burden isn't entirely on a shared, participatory “we,” like in “HSPTL.” When Mike drops the bombshell, “I thought I was responsible / but then they brought me to the hospital,” one can't help but think of a healthcare system that begs for diagnosis of differentials in a fixed, simplified personality, prescribing permanently paid Ritalin to an antsy, distracted kid instead of suggesting a dance or art class.
Unfortunately, there are moments where the poetic approach dissolves into plain-chanted preaching– the perennial achilles heel of pretty much all intelligent, real-dude underground rap (I'm really trying hard not to say “backpack” again). While the underlying politics of “The Financial Crisis That Wouldn't Go Away” couldn't be more dangerous or topically relevant information, and Awkward (who makes all the beats on this record) couldn't have paced his beautiful synth jabber any better, it's just damn boring. What could have been an asylum conspiracy theory turned venomous, metaphorical jab just winds up as Mike reading a scandalous Mother Jones article over music. Nevertheless, those moments are few and far between, and don't hamper his versatile flow, overarching premise, or the killer guest spots from like-minded genius pranksters like Serengeti and Danny Brown. At 4NML HSPTL's best, Open Mike Eagle has managed to offer a solid follow-up to “Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes,” and evolved his thematic range beyond hip hop culture critique by focusing and honing in on his wackily deranged concept.