Ask Open Mike Eagle, “What is art-rap,” and he will give you a serious answer. The former third- and fourth-grade special-education teacher will convey his disenchantment with hip-hop: the illegal downloading that killed the underground, the ephemeral nature of Internet mixtape culture, and the prevailing idea of rap as an avenue to making a quick buck.
Art-rap, he'd say, is the continuation of the lofty concepts embodied by Jean-Michel Basquiat, K-Rob and Rammellzee (RIP) back in '83 — hip-hop as high art. After all, TV on the Radio makes art-rock, and No Age can make art-punk.
But the Chicago-bred, L.A.-based Eagle understands what Oscar Wilde knew: If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you. So on his Mush Records debut, Unapologetic Art Rap, he turns to the skit to air his grievances, a strategy pioneered by Prince Paul and De La Soul, longtime torchbearers for art-rap before the term existed.
Once a staple on rap albums, skits have been an endangered species lately. The blog-rap generation has no Madd Rapper. There is no “$20 Sack Pyramid.” On 2007's “100 Miles & Running,” Wale lampooned clueless label executives who wanted him to make a Soulja Boy–type dance song, a joke that lost its punch line when he signed to Interscope and vainly avoided hypocrisy.
The best skit in years belongs to Eagle and his ringer, his old college buddy, SNL writer Hannibal Buress. Giving Buress the creative freedom to riff on the awkwardness and absurdity of “art-rap,” the track, “WTF Is Art Rap,” paints the picture: Art-rap is live shows with rappers rapping about art, while artists paint rappers rapping. There's a rap battle over a lifetime supply of hummus, while MCs aggressively point out elements of a Van Gogh painting to win Whole Foods gift certificates and American Apparel T-shirts.
A squeaky-voiced foil in the vein of Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Mooninites eggs Buress on: “You need to sell more coke! Gimme them pastels!” When the underground collapsed a half-decade ago, critics attributed its demise to self-serious humorlessness. Yet Eagle and Buress are funny in the best possible way: with a sardonic wit willing to topple both sacred cows and themselves.
What the fuck is art-rap? Art-rap is pretty damned good. Don't pretend like you wouldn't want to win a lifetime supply of hummus.