If there’s a ladder to success in Australian hip-hop, Mantra has been climbing it going at least as far back as 2008’s “Wasteland” by Illzilla. Though he was willing at the time to let his name be subsumed by someone else’s, Mantra has grown in confidence and skill since those days, and is now ready to step fully to the forefront in name. That can also in part be attributed to the production of “Speaking Volumes,” which Mantra describes this way in the one-sheet accompanying his CD:
“This is the first time I’ve record an album I was so in control of. I knew how I wanted it to sound and worked together with the producers and guest artists to make it happen.”
To put it in a nutshell, Mantra is putting it all on the line this time. Make no mistake about it, “Wasteland” was a great album, but Mantra had the luxury of being the lead artist of a project that didn’t bear his nom de plume directly. That makes it crucial for him to come correct this time, where he stakes an executive producer claim to everything on it, and if it’s not as good as Illzilla there’s nobody to blame for the beats or rhymes but him.
That’s a lot of pressure to be sure, but thankfully Mantra has a lot of talent to help him cope. Last time out I described the rapper this way: “Mantra is a thoughtful lyricist, an obviously intelligent man with a whole lot of things on his mind, and rapping is an outlet for him to express his fears and concerns.” That remains just as true on “Speaking Volumes.” You’ll notice his Strine speech immediately as a listener, vowels drawn out in ways somewhat familiar to our British readers, and largely foreign to our American mates. Perhaps you could call Mantra the Steve Irwin of rap, but let’s only do so for humor value, because to draw the comparison too far would do both the rapper and the late great Crocodile Hunter a disservice. Still “Game of Chance” is a song that shows off his dialect nicely, while also proving he’s easy to follow:
“Who holds the handle of that swingin axe we anticipate
Is it a twist of fate or somethin we instigate?
Would it exist without a name or would it fade
makin way for another spiritual theory to fill its place?
To further illustrate a believe in coincidence
Filling us with wonder while we ponder its significance
If all events are pre-determined and will eventually be
embedded in memory, essentially, this is destiny
What is meant to be, it will be
Though we may wish it was down to you or up to me
Precisely what was it you spotted in the cloud formations?
Blackjack bust or four aces?
Maybe it’s a test of dexterity’s strength or patience
The nature of this dangerous game that we’re all placed in”
Calling Mantra “a philosophical rapper” would probably be an understatement. It’s clear on any of his work, and particularly on “Speaking Volumes,” that Mantra spends a great deal of time pondering both his own life and the human condition as a whole. This leads to a musical output that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries, allowing Mantra to connect with audiences anywhere simply on the basis of human experience. This also allows him to tap into a wry self-deprecating humor without coming off either as whiny and shallow or an egotist hiding behind a mask. The sentiment of “Nobody Knows I’m Famous” is both whimsical and genuine, as Mantra makes fun of his anonymity while also asking better known rappers to be more creative:
“Same old shit, the same old places
Same fuckwads on rotation
Same artists are playin it safe
And yet net we get another standin ovation
Like takin a risk so blasphemous
Emcees take shit so serious
Everybody is a critic, everybody got a gimmick
Nobody wanna be a better lyricist”
Aside from Sweden-based rapper Promoe on “Self-Destruct,” Mantra keeps his guest appearances strictly home grown. Drapht drops in to help M deliver some “Bad News” to a boom bap backdrop. “Dead Em” is an all-star posse track including Illy, Muph and Urthboy. Melbourne singer Hailey Cramer helps provide hooks on the mellow “This Evening,” where Mantra offers this thoughtful truth: “The more you need something, the more it’s unattainable/the more you seek something the more your vision will fail you.” None of his fine sentiments would matter much without fine production to back them up though, and thankfully the producers here oblige. Mista Savona’s subtle hand and interwoven melodies on “Perfect Thing” won’t soon be forgotten, while Vegas bangs out hard hitting drums and keys on the rambunctious “Understand This.” No matter who is behind the boards the music doesn’t fail, and neither does Mantra, which makes this rapper who is still largely unknown outside his continent a treat for anyone who tunes in and turns up his “Volumes” of rap.