LIL UGLY MANE, or Travis Miller, has earned his status as former black metal musician-turned hip-hop wizard through a career of making rap music that sounds like both a love letter to and a parody of rap. It helps that he’s adopted the practice of releasing his music as long, undivided tracks that are spliced into two sides, like a cassette tape. On Lil Ugly’s Three-Sided Tape series, which mashes stray instrumentals with other floating loosies, this format gives the effect of a scrappily thrown together mixtape (in its pre-“free album” definition), full of jarring transitions and a sense of cohesion that is offbeat at best and nil at worst.
On Trick Dice, a project headlined by fellow Richmond-hailing rapper Nickelus F and produced entirely by Lil Ugly (under the alias Shawn Kemp), the effect of the cassette tape “format” is exactly the opposite. It’s hardly a hindrance to the album’s replay value that long, unspliced tracks force us to listen to the tracks without skipping around–the record is masterfully sequenced. Both halves of the project amble on leisurely, giving ideas enough time to breathe but never stalling on one for so long that it gets stale. Listen, for example, to how “Side A” ends: the slow plod of “Lucid Slowed,” a pitched-down lean-drenched crawl, punctuated crisply by “Paragraph of My Life,” a straightforward boom-bap beat with a long Nickelus F verse, uninterrupted by a hook or a chorus.
Up to this point, I’ve talked about this project as if it’s solely a LIL UGLY MANE project rather than a “Nickelus F & Shawn Kemp” project, and it’s certainly more the latter than it is the former. Throughout the album, Nickelus F is never able to escape from the shadow that is Lil Ugly’s overwhelming force of personality. It’s not that Lil Ugly is out-rapping or out-mic-presence-ing Nickelus F on every song–in fact Lil Ugly only has vocals on a few of the album’s tracks. It’s more that Lil Ugly’s production is extremely idiosyncratic, laden with details unique to Lil Ugly’s sound palette, yet it’s still specifically fitted to make Nickelus F sound good. The beat that changes up on “Da Reaper” sits nicely under Nickelus F’s sly mumbling and lends an air of swagger to otherwise vapid lyrics–“I break the weed up on them tittays / Then I put it in the air.” Tracks like “Protein” show that Lil Ugly is largely behind what’s making Nickelus F sound compelling, with Lil Ugly providing a sinister backdrop for Nickelus F’s oafish bravado.
As Lil Ugly’s production elevates Nickelus F, it swallows him at the same time, essentially making him an instrument in Lil Ugly’s sound pallette. To say this is hardly a knock, though, nor does it undermine Nickelus F’s contribution to the record. (This is only partly a retraction of my previously saying that Nickelus F sounds like a “rent-out J.Cole“.) Although there’s no doubt that Trick Dice sees Nickelus F get consistently outshined by the production that makes him sound so good, his chemistry with Lil Ugly is a strength of the album that cannot be overlooked.
There’s no doubt that Lil Ugly lifts much of his sound from jazz; “Clusterfuck” ends with a warm jazzy interlude in almost exactly the same way as Kendrick Lamar‘s “The Blacker the Berry,” off of another album in 2015 that pays explicit tribute to jazz in its production. Beyond what Lil Ugly lifts from jazz explicitly–warped saxophone samples, swing ride cymbal loops, saturated horn stabs–the chemistry between Lil Ugly and Nickelus F harkens to an intangible aspect of what makes jazz so enduring: the rush of being able to feel the musicians’ headspaces align onstage and hearing the result oozes out through crackly wax. Considering the array of sounds on Trick Dice isn’t too far off from the polished grit of Lil Ugly’s phenomenal 2012 release Mista Thug Isolation, perhaps Lil Ugly is also drawing on his black metal roots. A critical part of Lil Ugly’s overall charm as an artist is the image he evokes of a lone genius who sits in a lab tinkering with the finest details of his craft. The black metal he used to make is most definitely a far cry from what he’s making now, but his beat production does seem to share in the DIY aesthetic of when he was recording black metal by himself “with a weird fake ibanez looking guitar, a dr,rhythm drum machine, [and] a plastic karaoke mic.” Indeed, Lil Ugly’s intricate production is undeniably Trick Dice‘s defining highlight, but it’s the rapport that the beats share with Nickelus F’s rhymes that make this release so endearing.
Listen to the project here.