“I fell apart and took my mind with me.”
“Collapse and Appear,” the sixth track on this release by multi-faceted experimental project Lil Ugly Mane (Travis Miller), begins as a droning, distant little hip-hop song that doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, but eventually, it falls apart into a detailed and atmospheric ambient piece. And then amidst the sound, a voice pops in: robotic, cold, and unfeeling. It is a female text-to-speech system, and it’s repeating those words at the top: “I fell apart and took my mind with me.” Of course, that’s not all it’s saying; the voice actually repeats a rap, complete with rhyme schemes and flow, and the words are extremely misanthropic and cynical of the state of the world. It was at this moment that the intensely unsettling nature of “Oblivion Access” became even more apparent, but it was also the moment at which I realized that “Oblivion Access” is one of the wildest musical rides of 2015. I’m not gonna beat around the bush here: “Oblivion Access” is a mesmerizing experience.
Ugly Mane has always put out quality projects. His breakout release from 2012, “Mista Thug Isolation,” is an entertaining re-creation of grimy Memphis rap, “Uneven Compromise” is a fantastic EP, “On Doing an Evil Deed Blues” is legitimately one of my favorite singles ever, and more recently, his compilation of genre spanning unreleased pieces from this year, “Third Side of Tape,” is one of my favorite albums of 2015. But “Oblivion Access,” supposedly the last full record in the Ugly Mane discography, is the zenith of this project. I previously thought that “Third Side of Tape” was his Great Musical Statement, but incredibly, this tops that. As compared to the former’s monolithic nature, this is in comparison a short and concise 44 minutes. But those 44 minutes are one hell of a journey.
The album opens with a short noise piece, made out of blasts of static and what sounds like a recording of someone banging on something. It’s a loud, attention grabbing intro that immediately thrusts you into the strange musical world this album displays. It also leads up perfectly to “Columns,” one of the darkest and most standout tracks on the record. On it, we get a really abstract and distant instrumental, made out of horror-movie strings and these really eerie bells. Ugly Mane also spits a single verse, (which is a pattern that shows up a lot on this album), that displays some of the defining characteristics of “Oblivion Access”: nihilism, misanthropy, and cynicism. The whole verse is jaw-dropping in how Ugly casts his eye over the world and finds nothing to be optimistic about, but a few lines really stand out:
“I wasn’t born to just support the shit that’s palpable
I don’t see Earth as disproportionately valuable
If there’s a God I’m sure his name is unpronounceable
If there’s a Hell I’m sure we’ll all be held accountable.”
“Facts are human arrogance we barely know a fraction.”
Ugly doesn’t stray too far from this world view too much here. Lyrically, whether or not Travis is playing a character, “Oblivion Access” paints a picture of someone who likes to spend their time alone, scowling, in the dark. Among other things, Ugly also isn’t too pleased with his place in music. This is explored thoroughly on the wild closing track, “Intent and Purulent Discharge.” Really, it’s a straight-up, no holds barred diss track aimed straight towards critics and the internet music community, who want to over-analyze his music, label it, and in the process, mislabel it. Ugly Mane has always been an artist who has rejected all of that stuff while contemporaries like Death Grips bathe in it. (In their own special way, of course.) Ugly has also always insisted that his music was never meant to be taken super seriously and that he never really made it a goal to live off of rapping. There is a really telling line in this song that illustrates this stance in the most straight-forward way possible:
“But what if he was bored and there was no between the lines
It was a way to pass the time, he liked the way it rhymed.”
This album isn’t all doom and gloom lyrically though. Most notably, the track “Drain Counter” is a bit of autobiography. And while it does paint Ugly Mane as a bit of bad kid, who would cuss out his mom, smoke weed, and interrupt class room discussions, but it also shows the story of someone who acknowledges the world’s problems, but vows to rise above them. Aside from it being beautiful musically, lyrically it’s just a very heartfelt song. Wistful and not all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s one of the moments on the album where you can crack a smile.
Musically, it’s very dark as well, but like the lyrics, there are moments of beauty. Namely, on the instrumental track, “Leonard’s Lake.” Coming after the harrowing “Collapse and Appear,” this track, built on a gorgeously harmonious group vocal sample, is the sound of the choir singing as the chariot takes you up to Heaven’s opening gates in the clouds. For all of its beauty, the song is deceptively simple: just the aforementioned vocal sample, a drum groove, and some synths that offer counterpoints to the main melody. But the sound is so vast and wide. It has to be to conjure up such imagery. And that’s an aspect of this album that I need to speak on: its vastness. Every sound has this large reverb on it, especially the drums, that make this album sound huge. It’s like a dream. However, unlike on “Leonard’s Lake,” at other times it’s not such a friendly dream.
There are moments of beauty here, as mentioned above, but most of this album’s production is dark, noisy, and coated in grime and dust. In that, it’s not too far off from EL-P’s “Fantastic Damage,” or Dälek’s “Absence,” but it takes it about ten chambers deeper than those albums. The beats are dustier, the attitude is darker, and the noise is noisier. The way the album is mixed also lends itself to how harsh some of the noise is, too. It’ll be mixed normally, at a normal volume, and then when a harsh noise piece pops in, the volume spikes and it’s absolutely ear-shattering. This makes this album a really, really intense experience. You’re on edge most of the time because at any moment whatever zen you could be in could be demolished by a blast of pure noise. (Note, this is NOT a criticism.)
There’s so much you can say about this album that I’ll stop it here. Every song has so many things you can talk about, both lyrically and musically, because in both areas it represents some of the best in years. It’s really just one of those albums that had my jaw agape throughout much of it. Particularly, the run from the nihilistic text-to-speech rap at the end of “Collapse and Appear” to the spiritually beautiful “Leonard’s Lake” is one of the most mindblowing moments I’ve had in all of the years I’ve been listening to music. Ugly Mane would probably be frustrated to see so many people speaking in hyperbole when it comes to this album, but sorry, that’s kind of hard when you make music worthy of hyperbole. But here’s a statement that isn’t: “Oblivion Access” is one of the finest albums of the 21st Century.
Standout Tracks: “Columns” “Opposite Lanes” “Collapse and Appear” “Leonard’s Lake” “Drain Counter” “Slugs” “Intent and Purulent Discharge”