Hidden Gems: Lil Ugly Mane’s ‘Mista Thug Isolation’

With Hidden Gems, we look back at great albums that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

Hip-hop is a genre that highly values authenticity. Rappers often talk about it in their lines, whether they’re boasting about their realness, or slashing that of others. One of the things that attracts so many people to hip-hop is the underdog narrative it often presents; stories of poor, oppressed, forgotten men who honed their craft and became respected artists. Many rappers have continued the tradition of the come-up over the years, making music that is brutally, unflinchingly and relentlessly real.

You’re probably reading this and thinking, “this sounds like a lot of overly analytical Pitchfork fodder from a guilty, pretentious white guy who doesn’t know anything about hip-hop.” Well, minus the part about me having a job at Pitchfork, you’re right!

There’s a reason why hip-hop is so misunderstood by most people outside of its community, be it conservative moms who think its the sole cause of crime, or pretentious music critics who think its a dadaist statement on the concept of music in general. Much like punk, metal or jazz, hip-hop is made by its own community, for its own community. As popular as it has become, outsiders to the scene will find it hard to truly understand it.

That is unless you’re Travis Miller, a.k.a. Lil Ugly Mane, a caucasian noise musician turned rapper from Richmond, Virginia, who released what some have called the greatest rap album of the 2010s: Mista Thug Isolation.

Upon first listen, you’ll find it hard to believe the bio above. Everything about this 2012 album, from the lo-fi instrumentals, gruesome lyrics, laid back flows and chopped-and-screwed vocals sound like a classic Southern rap tape straight from the late ‘90s or early 2000s. Even the album cover pays homage to the scene, with a horrendous green font and overcrowded, schizophrenic portrait straight out of Pen & Pixel.

That’s not to say that Mista Thug Isolation is a simple homage to Southern rap. While it pays great respect to genre originals, its encyclopedic blend of horrorcore, trap, chopped-and-screwed, jazz rap and more Southern substyles makes it more of an evolution of the styles it references than a throwback.

The best example of this genre mishmash is “Wishmaster,” which starts with an almost Kanye-eqsue vocal sample, then throws on some lo-fi trap drums and a smooth 808 bass, as Lil Ugly Mane’s deep, menacing voice asks the listener, “Don’t you wish you could be me?” And that’s only the chorus; the verse turns into a horrorcore nightmare, with Psycho-esque strings and horns looped and chopped into a tense but oddly hardcore hip-hop melody. 

Lil Ugly Mane is able to pack in all of these ideas on Mista Thug Isolation for a few key reasons. The first reason is an artistic intent that puts good music before groundbreaking music, while managing to do both. While plenty experimental, Lil Ugly Mane exercises considerable restraint in not overdoing it like on some of the more convoluted genre-melding albums out there.

The second reason is length. This album is just over an hour, but unlike the bloated trap albums of today and the thankfully forgotten skit-laden projects of the 2000s, every song here feels needed. And it’s because of Lil Ugly Mane’s skill in different yet closely related genres that he’s able to pull this off. 

That’s another reason Lil Ugly Mane’s album works so well: it’s Lil Ugly Mane’s album. He produced the entire thing himself, and features only two guest verses (one of them being a young, somewhat reserved Denzel Curry.) Lil Ugly Mane is far too unique to turn Mista Thug Isolation into anybody’s vision but his own, and that keeps the project sounding a lot more focused than lots of mainstream projects with upwards of ten writing and production credits per song.

Though the production is fantastic, the lyrics are the icing on the cake. Lil Ugly Mane’s rhymes have an almost Slick Rick-esque approach to them (and he even dedicates a song to him);  defined by shocking and offensive bars that, while not flashy in speed or flow, are creative and quotable as hell. 

He manages to rhyme “lugubrious” with “uzi spit” and “gooey shit” on “Bitch I’m Lugubrious,” which is the most obvious example of his out-of-the-box, multi-word rhymes. But it’s lines like “She said ‘what’s your number?’ I said 1-800-Hell No, bitch, get going ‘fore I drop you with my elbow” and “I’m murderous, my crib got more burners than furnishings, got a lot of haters, not concerned with it, the Earth revolve around earning currency, Copernicus” that are impactful, disturbing and hilarious all at once.

Lil Ugly Mane’s approach to rap, especially for an outsider, is flawless. Unlike most rappers who hail somewhat from the outside, especially white rappers, he doesn’t try to be super deep, or super experimental; he just tries to be super good. And boy, does he succeed. 

Mista Thug Isolation is a rare example of something so left-field and so damn fun, it cements itself as a bona-fide classic.