What does it mean for an artist to have “matured?” Have they grown up? Have they aged? Has the content of their lyricism gained wisdom? Do we refer to the quality of their technique? A more polished sound?
In the case of Travis Miller, a.k.a. Lil Ugly Mane, it’s hard to say. From his blend of Southern rap influence and experimental hip hop styles to his most recent “pop” sound, Miller can’t be placed on a single avenue of music, nor does he adhere to the perception of how an artist’s music should “mature” over time. Instead, time appears to work in reverse as he effortlessly changes styles over the years.
Miller’s musical talent ranges from the Gangsta/Memphis Rap blend on Mista Thug Isolation, to the jazzy, soulful beats on Three Sided Tape Volume One, to the dark cloud rap loops under his Bedwetter alias. He’s a master of not only sampling styles but imitating them too, which is why it came as no surprise when he was able to put his own spin on the psychedelic pop styles of recent years with his two-sided single “porcelain slightly/into a life,” released on Sept. 14.
With these two new songs, Miller’s typical, experimental hip-hop styles are missing. Instead, the singles are far from what we are used to from the rapper: punk-edged, layered synths, acute samples and impossibly catchy melodies. The moment the guitar riffs crash on “porcelain slightly,” any LUM listener will recognize that this is no typical track from the rapper. Miller gives us no breaks as the layers of synths, reverberating guitars, delicate bass lines and even the presence of a repeating toy piano mesh together seamlessly.
Never is there a dull moment as every second is packed with earworm choruses and walls of sound production. As “into a life” is ushered in, its accompaniments of record scratches, distant radio samples and baritone vocals echo the layered pop music of artists like TV Girl and George Clanton.
What might perhaps be the most staggering difference is his lyricism. Of course, it’d be no challenge to produce such sounds for someone as comfortable with production as Miller. What is so surprising about these tracks is the softer, even poetic approach to lyricism, showcased on “porcelain slightly” with lines like “I count the stars like anniversaries / From a window of this prison that I’m in.” Compared to a track like “Bitch I’m Lugubrious” from Mista Thug Isolation back in 2012, “Bitch, I’m morose and lugubrious / I’mma let the Uzi spit / Turn his face into gooey shit,” Miller is stepping outside his lyric comfort zone, and confidently so.
The ironic wordplay and harder style of rapping found throughout his other works are traded for more emotive vocals. And the lyrics follow suit, adapting to this new tone. It works, to no surprise, against the layered samples and dreamy melodies.
These two tracks are reminiscent of Miller’s single from last year, “Headboard,” which was released along with a synthpop cover of the 1996 track “Here I Am” by British musicians DJ Ham, DJ Demo and Justin Time. Though the track appears to be a strong start to the artist’s emerging new sound, the song’s origins are a little more ambiguous.
Despite being released on a cassette back in 2020, “Headboard” made its way on the Spotify upload of Third Sided Tape Volume 1, a collection of tracks made between 2008 and 2011. It’s unclear if this was done to stay true to the album’s intention, being a mix of unreleased songs and instrumentals at the time of its 2013 release, or to put the single on Spotify for streaming purposes.
Then, on September 21, Miller uploaded two remixes of the “Headboard” single to his Bandcamp that were “strictly to be played at dance nights occurring between 2002-2004 in Norfolk, Virginia,” which puts the track’s creation even further back.
The cover, for both “porcelain slightly/into a life” and the newer “headboard (nineteen at the wave remixes),” feature the name “Pinhead Barbarians” alongside their graphics. Whether that is the name Miller is using for his new material or the name for the forthcoming album is currently unknown.
What is clear about these new tracks, however, is they aren’t treading any new territory for the artist. Miller shows us that maturing does not have to be synonymous with aging: He has always been confident in his techniques, has always been aware of the line between the ironic and the poetic in his lyrics and has certainly always been capable of producing beautiful sounds.
Perhaps to mature in music is to create unabashedly, and Travis Miller has always shown us he is not afraid to put himself out there.
Daily Arts Writer Conor Durkin can be reached at email@example.com.