Lil Ugly Mane: The hip-hop legend who never was
How long must Travis Miller wait for the recognition he deserves? Will he ever receive it?
Travis Miller has made music under numerous stage names, but his most impactful work has come under the pseudonym Lil Ugly Mane. Despite his lack of recognition outside of the underground scene (as well as certain corners of the internet), Lil Ugly Mane is responsible for the best Memphis rap by anyone not named Three 6 Mafia. His most well-known work, Mista Thug Isolation, is a hazy homage to early Memphis rap, but it’s far from a rote reproduction: Miller imbues the album with a dreamlike and colorful flavor that marks the project as distinctly his own.
His final album under the Lil Ugly Mane moniker, Oblivion Access, is a bolder and experimental, if less accessible, project. Not as directly influenced by the Memphis style, Oblivion Access is much more frustrated and toxic. At times he can get a little preachy, especially on “Columns,” but overall he pulls off his progression to a more industrial, noisy sound quite well.
However, his best work is not to be found on this, or any, album, but instead on two of his singles: “On Doing An Evil Deed Blues” and “Uneven Compromise.”
The former is a plunderphonic collage of old-school East Coast hip hop, which segues into a beautiful cloud-rap reflection on the creative process and Travis’s relationship to his own output. The beat itself, produced by Travis, is gorgeous and kaleidoscopic.
During the bridge, Travis states plainly one of the main points he makes in “On Doing An Evil Deed Blues”: “The blues weren’t born in a bunker.” This line has two points of significance: the first is that the emotional resonance behind blues music (and, by implication, all music) is inseparable from the artist’s actual life — no one can write the blues if they’ve never had them. The second and more interesting point is that creativity is a dialectic process; that is, all creative works are borne out of an artist’s reaction to and engagement with the artistic expression and ideas that they have encountered before. The intro is an overt expression of this idea, a sonic collage assembled out of fragments of older works that creates a coherent and new statement. “Art is imitation, creation is forever,” he claims.
The other thematic aspect of the track is Travis’s relationship to rap, and how it has changed over time. “I used to like to rhyme when it was all about linguistics / When Big L verses was like decoding hieroglyphics,” he says; rap, for Travis, was always about his love for music, and, as he reveals elsewhere in the song, while he once dreamed of fame, he realizes that that was never his true goal. These two themes are connected. In recalling his early influences, Lil Ugly Mane comes to the broader conclusion that no artist escapes the shadow of those who initially turned on their passion.
Lil Ugly Mane’s other magnum opus is the 2014 track “Uneven Compromise.” The first few minutes are dissonant, a near-satanic depiction of violence and misery. Just when the darkness feels like it’s about to overwhelm you, when the sickness is creeping in at the borders of the listener’s mind, the floor falls out into a short-lived, oddly-pastoral interlude. About five minutes in, the track launches into one of the best examples of boom-bap storytelling ever put on wax, a story of an old friend who is hopelessly and permanently lost to drug addiction and mental deterioration.
“Your homeboys change sometimes / The thoughts rearrange in their brains sometimes / It’s too hard dealing with the pain sometimes / But you gotta let go, you can’t save their lives.” Lil Ugly Mane’s nihilism here is convincing and painful. There is an overabundance of dark hip hop, but there are very few songs that manage to make darkness feel like such a powerful and all-encompassing force (as opposed to a cheap trick designed to provoke, or lend the artist a sense of gravitas).
Lil Ugly Mane’s ability to challenge the listener while integrating such disparate influences into a raw yet cohesive work is that of a creative master. His lack of mainstream recognition accentuates the themes of his music — he is a forgotten legend who never was, living in the dark and damp trenches of hip hop. He wouldn’t want it any other way.