Retrospective Review: ‘Oblivion Access’

Oblivion Access, is the second and final studio album by underground musician LIL UGLY MANE, also known as Travis Miller. He’s best known for his 2012 debut record, MISTA THUG ISOLATION, but he’s also known for his career as a noise and black metal artist in the 2000’s. MTI is a throwback record to the dark and grimy Memphis hip-hop scene of the nineties but turned up to eleven. 

LIL UGLY MANE introduced himself to the rap game as this quasi-human, drug slingling serial killer and gangster, “a project ghost” or a “hood apparition” in his own words. On his debut, he paints a world characterized by nihilistic hedonism, a world where UGLY MANE sprays you down with a landslide of bullets for crossing him, a world where the black diamonds on his wrist gleam as sips his lean, a world where he is the king that serpents worship.

Upon reviewing his older material, it seems odd that a noise artist would cross over to the world of hip-hop, but in truth noise — that is, “the expressive use of noise in a musical context” — has been part of hip-hop for decades. Even if they were not noise artists from the get go, groups like Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys defined themselves by their sonic wizardry and dense sound collages. A glance at the sample list or a deep listen of the production of, say, It Takes a Nation of Millions… or Paul’s Boutique proves that they were both masters and pioneers of sonic experimentation.

I’m talking about this album, Oblivion Access, because not only do I feel like it’s a sonic pioneer in the same vein of these albums, but it’s received a lack of press that is quite frankly, disappointing. I feel like this is because UGLY MANE isn’t signed to any label, but regardless, the only review proper of this album comes in the form of an incredibly lackluster video by music critic and YouTuber Anthony Fantano. I admit, with some ego, that I feel like this album hasn’t been done justice by the music journalists. I want to shed light on one of the most forward thinking hip-hop albums of the decade, and what makes it stand out amongst the pack. 

The first thing that stands out is Miller’s impeccable production. Here, he takes every single genre he’s ever worked and blends it all together to make one of the most alien-sounding hip-hop albums of the last decade. I hear his work as a noise artist, a one man black metal act and his love for boom-bap, Memphis rap and even jazz. 

His style is immediately identifiable, but that doesn’t mean the album is just the same track repeated thirteen times. Miller exposes a different side of his sonic pallet everytime, so there’s never a moment on the album that grows stale.

Take the first four tracks for instance. “Ejacualted Poison Wrench” bombards you with waves of dreary, black metal guitar riffs and rattling, rusty chains. Next, “Columns” is driven by mournful strings, a chiming church bell and looped screams: it’s like Miller is announcing the end of the world before the album’s begun. However, “Grave Within a Grave’s” instrumental is an incredibly gentle piano loop with some lethargic drums backing it. “Opposite Lanes” then throws that all out with a hard hitting, bass heavy beat that opens with the screams of what I can only assume is a dying animal. Miller goes to so many worlds in just these four tracks, and you get to listen to this sonic adventurism over the course of the whole album.

However, what really makes this record standout is Miller’s pen game. Not only is he a technically proficient rapper, but he delves into his own psyche in a way that few rappers come close to. Danny Brown and MC Ride come to mind, but Miller is just so blunt with his depressing, nihilistic worldview. To be clear, this isn’t a slight at these artists. I’m trying to say, as an emcee, Miller does not mince his words, and rarely tries to find a silver lining.

Misanthropy and death are common themes in hip-hop, but Miller takes it to new heights. Take the first lyrics of the album, for instance: 

Social self-obsessive species, everything is peachy

Having cyber interactions, get erections from the TV

Miller hates humanity. He doesn’t refer to us as human, we’re just some species too obsessed with sex and media for our own good. And notice how he switches on and off between alliteration and assonance. “Social,” “self,” then to “obsessive,” then species,” followed by “cyber interactions,” and ending on “erections.” It’s insanely intricate, it makes Miller sound like a venomous, hissing snake. 

Miller doesn’t just loathe humanity however, he’s filled to the brim with self-hatred and all kinds of anxieties. “Grave Within a Grave” is a meditation on Miller’s own end. To him, perhaps that’s all death is; rotting in your grave for all eternity. It’s a fear that I think a lot of us carry in the back of our head, that in Miller’s own words, “the biggest prison in the world’s underground six feet.”

“Achilles Foot,” is another one of these brilliant mediations, citing the uselessness of him drowning his fears of death in coke and booze: “I could read a billion books still not know what pill I took/I could have a million guns still walk with Achilles foot.” Death comes for all of us. We could be smarter than Einstein, be pilled up till our eyes are crossed, or walk with enough firepower to level a city block, but we’re all gonna be in the grave by the end. It’s that Achilles heel. Err, foot.

“Persistence” is another one of Miller’s self loathing anthems, but it’s also my favorite tracks on the album. The instrumental is just so gentle and sublime. Miller loops the strumming of a harp with a beat that mirrors the ticking on the clock. It plays well with the track’s theme of how time wears us down and our ability to empathize and even live. As the sample of Salvador Dali says in the beginning of the song, it’s “melancholy.”

However, this album isn’t just Miller ragging on himself for forty-odd minutes. He fancies himself a social critic, too. Throughout the album Miller expresses his distrust of the media, cops, teachers, politicians, fellow rappers, religion, technology, love and even his own audience — in no particular order. While I don’t think Miller is the most brilliant and nuanced social critic, he more than makes up for his lack of tact with the catharsis and wholeheartedness of his statements. Again, his pen-game really helps him. It helps him craft ambitious bars such as this on “Columns:”

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

I drew a portrait of Abraxis on a napkin

Sex has never given me an ounce of satisfaction

Or these lines off “Drain Counter:”

Ain’t even a challenge cuz the rap game basic

I ain’t heard talent since [“Incarcerated Scarfaces” Sample]

Face it, it’s fact not assumption

Rap sound like shit like “ship” with the fronts in

Hate getting lumped in, giant next to munchkins

Catch me on the other side wildin’ in the dungeon

There are also these solely instrumental forrays, and they help space the album out. I’ve already mentioned the lovingly titled “Ejacualted Poison Wrench.” There’s also “Leonard’s Lake,” “Warmest Flag” and “Compliance.” “Warmest Flag” and “Compliance” are the more conventional noise tracks (if a noise track can be conventional). “Compliance” in particular is a harsh noise wall that’s placed right before the finale, but “Leonard’s Lake” is something really special. 

Miller went nuts when he produced this track. It samples the gospel ballad “Didn’t It Rain?” so you hear these washed out voices wail that over the track’s ethereal and all-consuming synth waves and expertly crafted drum machine work. It’s beautiful, it’s nightmarish, it’s perfect.

There are also a few tracks that take on a wholly different approach to the album’s themes of time, death, and futility. For example, “Collapse and Appear.” Miller steps away from himself and tells a story of a friend who became an emotional shell after his brother’s death. “He used to laugh the loudest,” but now can no longer bring himself to leave his brother’s grave. The song gets really surreal when it shifts gears half-way through. A text-to-speech machine raps the thoughts running through the friend’s head, and it’s not pretty:

I fell apart and took my mind with me

Just a Ghost cloaked in lies with a broken spine

I fell apart and took my mind With me

Just an unrecognizable creature caught under an avalanche

The friend also just sees his brother’s death everywhere. Towel racks transform into the coffin handles pallbearers carry before his very eyes. Miller takes a huge gamble passing the mic to an automated voice, but it works in that it just emphasizes how detached the friend is.

“Drain Counter” and “Slugs” are the only tracks I would consider remotely optimistic. “Drain Counter” paints a picture of Miller’s humble beginnings as UGLY MANE, just being a punk kid that bucked authority whenever it tried to quash him out or send him to juvy. “Slugs” features Miller theorizing that slugs are just snails without shells:

The perception: evolution fucked them over and failed

But they survive without protection in this jungle they dwell 

With giants throwing salt on all their people

Can’t consider them frail.

The optimism fades quickly however. In the next verse Miller calls himself just a “bag of tumors” and raps about his drug use as a mechanism for coping with stress. 

The closer is something I must talk about, because of just how brilliant it is. Titled “Intent and Purulent Discharge,” Miller does just that. Makes his intent known as a purulent discharge. Here absolutely skewers critics, labelling them as hacks because of their efforts to dissect art and peddle this dissection to the masses. 

Art is tricking you with statements that the painter’s painting art

Without an explanation, it’s just pretty little marks

The market sold imagination just to keep you in the dark

Like you bitches need a cosign to rock a fashion

Like you can’t see a bigger picture without a caption

Until some critic go and write it out

A long winded trite amount of words

This is what I’m doing to you. Right now. I’m pedaling off my interpretation of a painter’s painting as high art, in the hopes that you’ll cosign what I’m captioning and seeing, in these trite words that can’t live up to the actual experience. Sure, this can be seen as a masturabatoruy gesture. Miller is putting down the critics and audience before they can criticize him, but he has a point. Isn’t that just the point of reviewing things? To get you to buy or not buy something? To make you feel how I’m feeling about an album, a movie, a show, a painting, a thought? 

This is where Miller’s truest strength lies, to lay down powerful bars without dressing up what he’s trying to say in veiled or cryptic metaphors. I won’t get into the rest of the track, but it’s probably the most powerful closer to an album I’ve ever heard. It’s one final, defiant pop off before Miller put the lid on the UGLY MANE project, and it’s just poetic. It’s also pretty damn funny.

Miller didn’t end his career when he finished this album, however. He released the album volume 1: flick your tongue against your teeth and describe the present. under a new alias, bedwetter, in 2017. While lyrically I think that album is superior to Oblivion Access, and the album art is amazing because it makes for a fantastic inside ‘joke’ (you’ll either understand what the album art is, or you won’t), it’s uneven, and doesn’t coalesce like Oblivion Access does.

To wrap up this review in so many trite words, Oblivion Access is my favorite album. Miller created a piece of music that perfectly captures the darkest thoughts a person can have. Doubts about the world, the afterlife, themselves, Miller lays it all bare on this record. In its own way, it is beautiful, and it’s something that I will listen to for many, many years to come.