This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Southern Hip Hop, Cloud Rap, Experimental Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Oedipus Rex”, “Paragraph of My Life”, “Gold Figaro”, “Cloud 9,999 (Phone Mix)”
Lil Ugly Mane (operating here under his second favorite moniker, Shawn Kemp) has struck again. One of the internet’s most lauded and mysterious producers of content, the man christened with the birth name of Travis Miller continues to keep his audience guessing, without utilizing the somewhat childish tactics of transgressive peers such as Death Grips. Releasing what is inarguably one of the best releases of 2015 back in April (the mind-blowingly versatile THIRD SIDE OF TAPE) as a denouement to his purported swan song, OBLIVION ACCESS, Miller’s collaboration with fellow Richmond artist Nickelus F was a surprise to virtually everyone. Criminally unknown in the rap community, Nickelus F has remained strictly a local phenomenon, despite having the unique career distinction of featuring on Drake’s debut mixtape, ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, in 2006 (!!!). As even Mane admits, TRICK DICE lacks a certain sense solidified cohesion due to having been culled from several years of sprinkled collaboration; that being said, there’s no doubt that this is Nickelus F at his best, complimented by the continuation of Mane’s victory lap.
Presumably in an effort to “expose” Nickelus F, Lil Ugly Mane rarely appears as a vocal force on TRICK DICE. Thankfully, Nickelus F demonstrates his capability as a captivating MC. Despite some rather regressive lyrical tendencies (F drops “faggot”, “slut”, and “habibi” without a second thought), there are a variety of flows and energies channeled in his rhymes. Opener “Oedipus Rex” bursts onto the scene, featuring a piano-heavy boom bap beat that immediately throws Nickelus F’s gravelly delivery into the spotlight as it flies over punctuated percussion. F sounds angry and volatile, possessed with a barely restrained fury that continues to carry across on tracks such as “Protein” and “Moonlight”. In general, Side A of TRICK DICE is much darker and atmospheric, with synths reminiscent of SILENT HILL popping up on “Da Reaper” and the aforementioned “Moonlight”, in addition to the flagrant nod to the production techniques of DJ Screw on “Lucid Slowed”. There’s not an overt amount of style switch-up (other than the comparatively reductive qualities of F’s rapping on “Protein”), but Kemp’s production compliments F’s delivery nicely, with the surprise stand out being the optimistic production and unfiltered vocals of “Paragraph of My Life”.
SIDE B quickly posits itself as another beast entirely in terms of tone, with the slinking bass and head-bobbing drum beats of “Gold Figaro”. “D.S.L.S.” is another track that feels more classicist in nature, featuring a jazz-y arpeggiated synth pattern, DJ scratches, and a manipulated vocal sample. The most interesting track by a landslide is “Cloud 9,999 (Phone Mix)”, which serves as Nickelus F and Shawn Kemp’s take on cloud rap; a filter is applied that makes everything seem esoteric and flighty, as a vocal hook straight out of Friendzone’s playbook carries us away. Album closer “Bathory Motives” also deserves attention, as F turns in his most rhythmically mature verse over subdued washes of choral synthesizers, before devolving into a manic long-form verse towards the end that’s truly astounding. Although SIDE B features the more individually impressive performances, its strange blend of styles demonstrates the fact that Kemp has cobbled together TRICK DICE over several separate sessions with F, and unfortunately feels less coherent because of it.
Despite its high points, long-time fans of Miller’s content will be slightly disappointed by the recycling tendencies he’s employed here in order to glue together a forty minute release. TRICK DICE is more easily digested as Kemp using his status and talent in order to expose an underrepresented hip hop talent, and when viewed in this light, it succeeds immensely. Before the inevitable hype train for OBLIVION ACCESS builds up steam, TRICK DICE serves as an enjoyable calm before the storm.