Noise musician turned rapper Travis Miller made his mark as Lil Ugly Mane with Mista Thug Isolation, a weird and wonderful album that, five years after its release, still commands a cult status.
How does Travis Miller, a noise musician from Richmond, Virginia, not only make the transition to hip-hop but end up making one of the decade’s most defining underground rap albums? Five years later, on its fifth vinyl pressing through small Italian label Hundebiss, Lil Ugly Mane’s Mista Thug Isolation still commands a cult status. It is largely based off the slowed down, nearly psychedelic remixes of DJ Screw and the hazy horrorcore of early Three 6 Mafia, both sounds experiencing a renaissance at the time even when Houston and Memphis’ mainstream sounds were beginning to wane in popularity. One of his first guest appearances was on Spaceghostpurrp’s mixtape Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991), which was treading similar territory. Nothing comes from a vacuum, but Isolation’s brilliance is that despite its familiar influences, it sounds totally alien from anything before or after it, even in Lil Ugly Mane’s own catalog.
Isolation was produced by “Shawn Kemp,” which is really just Miller’s production alias. It’s a nod to his ’90s obsessions, but he went from horrorcore pastiche into a capable producer in his own right in just over a year from his first full-length, Playaz Circle. “Cup Fulla Beetlejuice” is classic Three 6 production mixed with goofy Halloween ghost sounds; “Lean Got Me Fucked Up” is bassy enough to justify the song’s name. He also works in Wu-Tang piano in “Bitch I’m Lugubrious” and “Serious Shit,” as well as some smooth saxophone in the latter. Despite beginning with a throwback to his noise days, parts of Isolation are surprisingly pleasant. “Breezem Out” and “Lookin 4 Tha Suckin” are the greasiest quiet storm songs, while “Mona Lisa Overdrive” sounds like Clams Casino remixing Kool Keith’s Sex Style, with Miller keeping his own horndog persona in check. This can be traced back to his core influences: Screw’s mixtape of chopped and screwed R&B Late Night Fuckin Yo Bitch and Three 6’s “Da Summa” both showed serenity in darkness. Isolation came at the tail end of Witch House’s popularity, and while bands in that sphere also toyed with Screw and Three 6 like Miller did, he went beyond overt druginess to establish the album’s wide-ranging, yet consistently menacing production.
A project such as Isolation has to potential to have “tourist” written all over it, but the most surprising thing about Miller is that he has serious bars. While he traffics in the same boastfulness rife in hip-hop, he’s got a gift for absurdity with the strangest and catchiest lyricism. Sometimes it manifests in casual nihilism, like this slouching gem from “Lugubrious”: “I ain’t really nothing like a hero/I just wanna get my dick sucked and multiply them zeros.”
Miller also isn’t weird just to be weird. As with his production, he finds new edges to common tropes. “Serious Shit” blows up the vaunted concept of the hustle: it’s one thing to rap about making a lot of money (“The earth revolves around currency/Copernicus”); it’s downright evil to “stay grindin’ till my pockets straight Halliburton.” Isolation is not a record of social commentary, but he still wants you to know who the really malicious grinders are. Miller’s taste for black metal blasphemy, which he explored in past projects Seidhr and Vudmurk, emerges in the raunchy “Slick Rick,” where he talks about engaging in affairs in church, “leave ‘em looking messy in the presence of God.” He applies metal’s over-the-top hysterics into hip-hop in Isolation, which is why he can pull off doing shows wearing an Incantation long-sleeve.
A year after Isolation’s release, Miller toyed with the idea of retiring Lil Ugly Mane, which never came to fruition, even though it was completely understandable. Despite the underground hype, bolstered by an Earl Sweatshirt cosign, he didn’t really use it to advance himself, never being into touring or pursuing bigger features. He recently admitted in an interview for his side project Secret Circle that the idea of money for bars, second nature for established names, is still a new one for him. It gets real lonely being in your own lane. His later works would deal with paranoia and depression more personally, especially his new project Bedwetter whose debut came out earlier this year. In Isolation’s reckless and sometimes nonsensical boasting, it’s hinted at. The record is the fever dream of a conqueror, where nightmarish sounds become a perverted form of dream pop and fantasy eliminates the concept of consequence. He’s moved away from ghoulishness since then, but he’s still cerebral like no rapper above or below.