If someone asked me who my favourite rapper from Utah is, I couldn’t answer them. In fact, forget about favourites, I can’t even think of ONE off the top of my head. Now that might simply be a reflection on my knowledge of regional US rappers, or memory slipping in old age, but I think the reality is more that Utah hasn’t been a location synonymous with hip hop over the years and will likely never be. Not that he’s out to sell himself on the fact, but uMaNg (not a typo) is a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah, and thus holds the distinction of being the first rapper I’ve heard from that part of the US. Frankly though, the place he calls home doesn’t particularly hold much influence over his style; he originates from New Jersey, and has enlisted the skills of Swedish producer B.B.Z Darney to compose the sonic arrangements for his 3rd album “The Revisited”. It’s no secret to most of us that present day European hip hop beat-smiths tend to favour the traditional East Coast underground hip hop sounds, and B.B.Z Darney is no different in also possessing a “New York State of Mind” musically. Therefore, you’re definitely getting something with a New York hip hop identity here.
Initially, I’m going to point out a couple things about this album that may sound quite negative, but bear with me as you’ll see that things aren’t necessarily as bad as I first make them out to be.
I can’t really argue with the statement in the liner notes of a “90’s influence can be felt all throughout the album, from beginning to end”, but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album where the songs sound so similar. I’m all for a cohesive sound across an album (and generally demand it), and obviously having only one producer behind “The Revisited” leads to that uniformity, but there’s a fine line between cohesion and replication – and there’s a definite lean to the latter for some of the tracks on this album. I’m not exaggerating in saying that musically the album doesn’t really deviate from its core sound for twelve of its sixteen tracks (there is a mid-album grouping of a quartet of songs which can be seen as representing a “breadth of sound” segment of sorts). The majority of tracks use the formula of: a head nodding, mid-tempo breakbeat at the core, tinkling piano keys/faint guitar strums/subtle horns, vocal samples from other rappers in the chorus, and the dusty vinyl static effect has a strong presence also (which I do like but the novelty is wearing off for me as more and more people use it). What differentiates these tracks is the punch in the beat is slightly beefed up or toned down on some tracks, or the instruments are given less or greater emphasis dependent on the song, but those changes aren’t distinct enough to leave each track with its own strong identity. This similarity becomes noticeable after only the first few tracks, and by the time you reach the latter stages of the album dÃ©jÃ vu really kicks in.
Then we have uMaNg himself. The CD booklet also indicates that a theme of the album is to re-visit the days when bragging and battling were the norm, and uMaNg stays very true to that, painfully so at times if I’m honest. As with the repetitive nature of the production, the bulk of his rhymes are pretty much the same thing over and over i.e. taking verbal shots at his imaginary enemies. He clearly lets you know “the pen got the might of a sword stab” and he will “put the drapes on your career like the Shroud of Turin”. My declaration of him being one-dimensional might not be entirely fair, as shortly I’ll discuss that he does get personal on tracks such as “Revisited II”, “One Moment”, and “On a (Honor) Roll”, but the main focus is most definitely boasts and taking out sucker MC’s, and it does wear a bit thin.
So, the proposition of one battle rap after the next, over much the same beat, for song after song doesn’t sound too promising does it? Maybe not, but, I have plenty of time for an album that I can put on when I want to hear a certain style and sound – and that’s what “The Revisited” is to me. The album has a clearly defined vibe, thanks to the somewhat overly precise execution of its concept, and battles or not, it has an overall feel that is suitable for cruising around on late night drives, and it’s probably not bad for the headphones and backpack too if you’re that way inclined. It wouldn’t surprise me though if the lack of variety here doesn’t hold people’s attention over the course of the entire album.
Despite the lack of diversity in his rhymes, I do find uManG’s voice quite appealing. I doubt he’ll ever be anybody’s “Top 5 Dead or Alive”, and I think he’d benefit from having a more commanding tone (he sounds quite teenaged despite being 30), but the man has a natural ability to flow, and FLOW he does. He’s the type of MC that crams as many words as he can into each bar, and this seems to come quite naturally. Admittedly though, due to his lyrical profusion within each bar, breath control does become an issue at times, such as during the latter stages of the opener “Mic Operator” where I notice an obvious strain in his voice in trying to get all the words out. On “Moonrays” his flow also plays against him to an extent in a different way, as it feels like he’s a bit distant, lost in a rhyming to himself zone, which left me feeling a bit disengaged. Overall though, he’s great to listen to, and most times he’s actually pretty mesmerising and I often found myself captivated by his flow when listening to the album. For the punch-line fans out there, nice lines abound, a couple examples being: “now I pick up steam like evaporation”, “I keep my cool like a marble floor” and “I ain’t have to slice a wrist to touch a nerve”. It’s interesting that on “Killzone” he shouts out Hex One and Tek-nition (AKA Epidemic), as Hex One possesses a similar wordy microphone technique; I have no idea what the connection is between the two (uMaNg gives props to these guys in interviews too) but the styles are reminiscent of one another. Actually uMaNg reminds me more of another current day MC called Effect (his album “You Don’t Love Me and I Don’t Care” was recently reviewed on this site), or for more famed comparisons, there are slight touches of Canibus and Big L here also (but he doesn’t have the same grit as Canibus or as much venom as Big L).
Despite having a song called “Glass Thrones”, in my opinion his crown is attained on “One Moment”. Yes the sentiments are somewhat reminiscent of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, but nonetheless it’s just as powerful and personal coming from uMaNg, and it’s one of the few of songs here that are given a different backdrop by Darney, a backdrop which has moody orchestration that I’d label as emotional. The lyrics are the highlight though, and I’d be doing the song an injustice by not including a sizeable extract of the lyrics here:
“Right now, I’m a designer of fate
Every line presides in a space that is timeless from age
All we are is thoughts and ideas
A song’s a light, mere as the fog, your mind clears it
When you given a mic, there’s no retreating it
Though there’s a ticket and price to what your freedom is
Oh my cosmos, I wish you grant me the rag to riches story
The dap, the instant glory, the glam and glitz ain’t for me
I’m observing the night sky, realising I’m the universe and the pint size
See, an artist’s gain is most rewarding, simply because art is pain
When I step in the booth I’m possessed with a rhyme
Now either I’m stretching the truth, or compressing a lie
Regardless, expression is appropriate
Don’t want a dystopia, when rhythm is stripped off of ya
You could be immortalised in a song
If you play your cards just right, your soul livens the bars
It’s like stepping out the fabric
Where space and time don’t interfere and get between the happening
I rose from my ashes, when push comes to shove
I confronted my fears, and I pushed it backwards
I had quit emceeing and gave up
But now I’m parallel to a phoenix, that’s what dreams are made of”
Coming back to “Glass Thrones”, it needs to be mentioned for the fact that it’s another one of the tracks that differ from the overall sound. Yes it has a similar kind of drum again and the faux vinyl static is buzzing around, but the overall majestic medieval feel is most welcome and appropriately matches the lyrical content of uMaNg, who details striving to reach hip hop royalty and grandeur despite his detractors. “Lesson Iz Done” also brings a fresh variation with choral voices dancing around behind the track. I’ll credit “Why You Frontin'” as being somewhat different too, due to being kicked off by a Mobb Deep “Right Back at You” sample, but it doesn’t quite live up to the grimy promise of its introduction and chorus, as the song falls back pretty closely to the default vibe of this album during the verses. By far the most unique musical creation within the walls of this album is “Beat the Odds”; with its Indian (i.e. the continent not Native American) instrumentation it’s a rare aural nod to the racial heritage of uMaNg. Although somewhat disappointingly, uMaNg stays in battle mode here and, to be frank, I would have preferred him to speak on the Indian experience in America (I know for a fact that Indians don’t have it easy here in Australia) – possibly being the first rapper in the US to do so. Clearly not everyone does or should come from the school of Chuck D racially charged lyricism, and I’m probably guilty of type-casting uMaNg by suggesting he should be hip hop’s voice for his race in America, but I can’t help viewing this song as a missed opportunity as the words and music could have corresponded perfectly. Having said that, he does briefly touch on the topic by mentioning an occurrence of racism in the very personal “Revisited II”, but the song is an overall broader discussion about the struggles in his life, from growing up, to where he is now.
Aside from those few tracks, what you get on one track will be heard again elsewhere in the album. “Mic Operator” blends too seamlessly into the following track “Holdin’ It Down”, “Killzone” sounds too much like “Nightmare”, and you can pair off the majority of songs here to a sound-alike elsewhere on the album. The presence of a few guest rappers may have helped add refreshing diversions, but I give total props to an MC who has the confidence to hold an album down solely with his own skills â€“ I find that very impressive in this day and age actually. There is, however, a guest artist of another kind on two tracks, i.e. DJ Grazzhoppa, but the flexing of his DJ muscle doesn’t add much value to the songs. The standout amongst all the similarly produced songs is definitely “On a (Honor) Roll”. I really like the way the Phife sample is allowed to run for far longer than vocal samples normally would, and it’s worked into the track where it almost seems like Phife is a guest artist on the song – it’s really well executed:
Although at the risk of contradicting myself, there is a recurrent reliance on this type of long vocal sample on the album, which again loses its attractiveness due to overuse as the album progresses e.g. the appeal isn’t quite the same by the time an elongated Big Pun sample shows up on track fourteen, “Nightmare”.
I’ve only flicked through his previous two albums, but based on that brief exposure I feel that uMaNg’s work has progressed nicely. At a glance, his first album “The First Impression” seemed a bit amateur, and the follow-up “Lasting Impressions”, also produced by B.B.Z Darney, was grimier than this one (you might prefer that album if you want an edgier feel). However, there is potential to do better, the key to that being “variety”, i.e. variety with the beats and also with the lyrical content; musically some of the ideas are totally run into the ground due to their frequency, and uMaNg himself portrays to be an intelligent brother who I’m sure can deliver on far deeper levels than constantly telling us how good he is and about the numerous ways the next guy sucks. Okay sure, he set this album up with a concept of being a battle statement, and he delivered, but he’s at risk of losing me if his next album is much the same as this one. I want uMaNg, B.B.Z Darney and all other current day throwback themed hip hop guys to keep in mind that whilst the 90’s weren’t called the “Golden Era” for nothing, the best part about the 90’s was the creativity and new ideas and sounds that the best artists came forth with. Therefore, if uMaNg steps it up and comes fresh then he’ll be on my radar for some time to come.