Note: Arrest The President is a weekly TROY Blog column that looks at rap, past and present, from a socio-political perspective.
Open Mike Eagle’s “Nightmares” opens with its hook, which states that “… every word that comes through me/ It was born in a nightmare.” These lines appear to echo the Romantic notion that nightmares inspire sublime poetic expression by provoking terror and pleasure all at once. It is not clear whether this part of the hook can be attributed to Open Mike Eagle’s narrator or to the anthropomorphic alarm clock1 that lulls him to sleep. The song’s hypnotic pace evokes a nocturnal world where reality is warped, where imaginative flights may turn bizarre or even macabre.OME doesn’t let his listeners stray too far into blissful contentedness. The music and vocals are sparse and soothing but leave sufficient literal and figurative space for a stoked imagination to run amok. Uncanny melancholy lurks between suggestive lines like “I met some old friends recently / They on a whole new frequency.” Who are these friends? Have they been brainwashed by some invincible institutional force? Addicted to some widely distributed chemical or multimedia distraction? Are they alive or ghostly? Still friendly or conniving and hostile?
Occam’s Razor in insufficient without clarification from OME himself. “I made some new friends the other day” leads me to ask if these new friends are actually the old friends in a frightening new form. The “new” friends are found to be disappointing, but in a seemingly innocuous way: “they was talking about colorways.” At first I presumed that this was simply an anti-hipster joke about friendly conversation being reduced to discussing banalities like sneaker designs. The rest of the song’s lyrics suggest that more is at stake than aesthetic or consumer preferences, however.
For OME’s narrator, it is a given that creativity is compromised in the marketplace. Artists cannot find solidarity in their intellectual mischief-making. The same cultural tourists and dilettantes who co-opt and dilute niche forms through overexposure disparage artists and connoisseurs as overly earnest squares. In a “post-modern”2 landscape of “style orphans,” OME must emphasize the pastiche cultural and political “lineage” of rap’s aesthetic forms, from the iconography of the Black Panthers to the classic b-boy stance. Once this lineage is reduced to a series of empty commodified signifiers, or worse yet, ephemeral and banal talking points in social media text exchanges, then hip-hop’s Afro-Diasporic origins, rebellious stance, and masterpiece albums begin to disappear from view.
This nightmarish exploitative predicament has been explored in rap by artists like Del The Funkee Homosapien and Gravediggaz, who smartly liken it to the literal buying and selling of black bodies during the Transatlantic slave trade, and The Clipse, who describe the psychological turmoil associated with participation in the illict trades that flourish as a result of the U.S.’s imperial wars and neoliberal trade agreements. OME’s critique runs along these lines but he is impressively attentive to the cultural devastation of capitalism’s later stage. The unprecedented consolidation of the music industry in the last decade and a half and the subsequent unwillingness of A&Rs to take gambles on left-of-center artists means OME and his peers will have to hustle their brands, Grub Street hack style, mostly for free via social media.
While such autonomy might seem preferable to the older centralized methods, the pitfalls of overexposure have been traded for those of overproduction. The impact on the artistic morale is catastrophic. When everything is destabilized and all distinctions are collapsed, when every idea or work is perceived at best to be an ahistorical stylistic gesture, then the very notion of a genuine artistic (and by extension, ideological) alternative seems far-fetched. When the post-industrial ghettos that birthed rap music are seized through toxic mortgage loans3 and private-public abuses of eminent domain, and then gentrified beyond recognition, the status that hip-hop once enjoyed as a bottom-up influence on pop culture is diminished.
The unsigned, struggling rapper of the 21st century feels little in the way of meaningful connection to the hip, affluent crowds at open mics. He sees the bohemian affect as an extension of class privilege and fumes at white indifference to the dispersal of people of color from center cities into drab aging suburbs. He mourns the deterioration of the revolutionary dream of rap music serving as a surrogate social program for unemployed and disenfranchised youths. He is proud of his creative energy and his now quaint working class ethics, represented by the Buick motor-like heart that possesses no lasting cachet in spite of its impeccable construction.
Like other people of conscience and imagination, he feels alone at the crowded bar and bored by the same old chatter. He will push on, though, and draw inspiration from his nightmares, even if he has to get a paper route and give up cable to make ends meet and his only frequent respite comes in the form of food truck tacos. — Thun
- Fellow LA rapper Aceyalone pioneered this trope on “Grandfather Clock.” [↩]
- I would argue that OME is actually describing a “pseudo-modern” landscape. [↩]
- OME goes into very specific detail about this on “The Financial Crisis Song.” [↩]