Mike Eagle recently travelled to Louisville, Kentucky, on two days notice. He had agreed to fight an antagonistic wrestler named Shiloh Jonze, who’d spent weeks prodding at Eagle in hammed-up YouTube freestyles and cringeworthy call-out tweets. Eagle is a committed wrestling fan with a podcast to prove it, but until he stepped into the ring in the Bluegrass State that night (and won), he was no wrestler.
Two weeks later, he’s sitting in a six-by-six dressing room (and storage space) behind Artte, a smart but modestly sized music venue in the shiny, tourist-friendly Eixample district of Barcelona. He’s preparing to play a show for 80-or-so people, only a handful of whom know enough English to understand Eagle’s intricate lyrics. But Louisville’s still on his mind.
“That was one of the greatest moments of my life—I have a child and a wife, so I can’t say it was the greatest day of my life,” he says, leaning past the ladder between our chairs, whispering: “But it might be the greatest day of my life.”
There are very few people—let alone musicians—who would so enthusiastically travel 2,000 miles and agree to join a pro wrestling bout on roughly one day’s training. There aren’t many rappers who’d jump at the opportunity to play here, in the northeastern corner of Spain, hundreds of miles from the well-trodden northern European tour path. But, in ways that both energize and enervate him, Eagle’s always been an independent force. Since his full-length 2010 debut,Unapologetic Art Rap, he’s been a proud hip-hop outsider, an erudite, free-form comedian who can cut into searing injustice and bleakness in the middle of a punchline. In the past two years, he’s released two full-length records, Hella Personal Film Festival and Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. The first is a sprawling collaboration with the British producer Paul White; the latter is a stunning, wildly ambitious, meticulously researched record about the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, a public housing project where some members of Eagle’s family still lived before it was condemned and demolished.
More than anything he’s released in the past, however, it’s his latest project,What Happens When I Try to Relax, that reveals the hows and whys—and the pros and cons—of Eagle’s career path. It’s a witty, incisive, and sometimes uncomfortably honest six-track project. It opens with the self-reflexive “Relatable (Peak OME),” a song on which Eagle both owns up to feeling socially awkward and implies that he needs to seem awkward to draw in fans. On “Every Single Thing,” Eagle picks apart racism and division in the plainest possible terms—”How it’s both sides? We ain’t both dyin'”—before falling into a troublingly airy, video game-referencing chorus: “Pause me, learn me, 100 percent / Predict me, get me, 100 percent.” What Happens is funny—”What you eat? Let’s get you fed / Do you drink? Is you dead?” he asks on “Single Ghosts,” his second song about dating the undead in as many years—but it’s also inescapably anxious.
Above all, the project details the unglamorous daily struggles of a rapper who, despite all the acclaim, will always carry around prefixes like “art,” “alt,” and “underground”—the T-shirt runs and credit card bills and endless tours. On “Southside Eagle,” the song he’s identified as the record’s most immediately important, he raps: “I saw Kendrick at Leimert, didn’t say shit / I saw Vince at the club and didn’t say shit / Cause this independent hustle is adjacent.” On “Every Single Thing,” he raps with weary contempt: “The economy killed the rhyme star.”
Five minutes after our conversation concludes, he’ll walk onstage at Artte, alone, and play to a crowd that, at least down at the front, seems to know when the drops are coming. He’ll chop his set up with jokes, and the wall behind him will light up with graphics from Video Dave, his longtime collaborator and tour support. He’ll bellow and dance and sweat and seemingly have so much fun that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the last show he ever plans on playing. As an independent rapper, he is, he says, a “warrior.” And this show is another battle for him to win.