Volunteer pick album review: THIRD SIDE OF TAPE by Lil Ugly Mane

Maureen Thacker, Volunteer DJ

Hip-hop. It’s a genre that everybody’s familiar with. Its influence on today’s music scenes, both mainstream and underground, is incalculable. Tracing back to the house parties of DJ Kool Herc, hip-hop is rooted in staying on the cutting edge. And what better rapper to define the cutting edge than Richmond noise-musician-turned-rapper Travis Miller, also known as Lil Ugly Mane. 

While not being the most known figure in hip-hop, he’s definitely one of the most underappreciated. (With lines like “I’m a boss, imma put you in the cemetery, picture of my middle finger next to your obituary,” it’s obvious that Ugly Mane means business.) Having worked with Antwon, Wiki, and even Denzel Curry, his projects Mista Thug Isolation and Uneven Compromise (the latter being my favorite EP of all time) have already become instant classics in horrorcore, according to internet circles. However, after the release of Uneven Compromise, Ugly Mane decided to tackle the large goal of releasing what he calls his “Three-Sided Tape,” a three-album-run of instrumentals that he’d been working on since the release of Mista Thug Isolation. The first two albums are pretty good, mostly standard instrumentals with the occasional raps from he or Richmond contemporary Nickelus F. But Ugly Mane was having trouble figuring out what material he should use for the last album. At a loss for ideas, he decided to go back. Way back.

THIRD SIDE OF TAPE contains material spanning just about every musical flavor under the sun, dating from 1999 to 2012 (most of the material, I assume, is from before Mr. Miller picked up the Ugly Mane moniker, which is believed to have started being used somewhere in the late 2000s or early 2010s). And at over two hours, this long strange trip is a sight to behold, and one of the most intriguing releases of the past decade. I mean, just look at the confirmed genre tags on RateYourMusic (and yes, they’re all accurate).

It’s a hulking behemoth of an album, and although a select minority of people have complained that the project consists of merely over-glorified demos spliced together, I believe it’s a much bigger achievement than that. The six sides of the tape cement Ugly Mane’s legacy and prove that he’s one of the most versatile, unsung musicians of his time.

Not only are the contents of the album fantastic, but it continues the literary tradition of absurdism a la Joyce and Camus. One of the first songs on SIDE ONE-A is a gangsta rap song about his cats. You heard me right. And it sounds badass as all hell, not to mention having one of the hardest beats on the album. (The song is also one of my favorites in his discography, as well as it is one of the most underappreciated.) SIDE ONE-B starts off with an experimental hip=-hop kind of beat and then transitions into a country instrumental. This is followed by something that I don’t even know what you’d classify as (techno indie experimental lounge?) and has a trance song after. The fact that they’re almost completely seamless transitions between all of the tracks only enforces Mr. Miller’s brilliance. The hip-hop passages are super clever and well-produced, the techno tracks jam super hard, the punk and metal songs are vicious and hard-hitting, and everything in between is extremely fascinating. My only gripe with it is some of the material feels like it goes on for too long (for example, very repetitious hip-hop instrumental which stretches past the five-minute mark), which is kind of unfortunate, but I suppose that it’s kind of a frivolous complaint for a 2+ hour-long album. Another complaint about some is that it’s sort of tedious to sift through all of the material if you decide not to listen to the full album, which I understand, but I feel like the best way to listen is to listen to it in full.

I really wish that I could review this track-by-track as I did in my NoMeansNo review, but it’s such a massive sonic landscape that the only thing I can really say is that it’s an album that words don’t do justice. The only way to fully appreciate it is by diving head-first into the beautifully strange wreckage, admiring Mr. Miller’s bizarre musical interpolations on your own.