Travis Miller's most acclaimed album, Mista Thug Isolation, came out five years ago.Reuben Andrews

Many things lose their vitality when improperly dissected – jokes, magic tricks, people. One area in which this holds particularly true is art. Context illuminates art, but all too easily can intrusive and irrelevant questions inhibit meaningful discourse: Who made this? How? What do they look like? What's their favourite colour? Et cetera.

Someone who understands this risk is underground musician Travis Miller, a 32-year-old producer and hip hop artist from Richmond, Virginia. On the fifth anniversary of his most acclaimed album, Mista Thug Isolation, it seems appropriate to trace the way in which he has explored, and wrestled with, the concept of artistic identity throughout his musical career.

Miller is most well-known for his project Lil Ugly Mane, though this is far from his only alias – Shawn Kemp, Cat Torso, and Slumpy D are to name just a few. What distinguishes Miller from other artists who have assumed multiple identities, however, is the context and genre in which his music exists: Miller’s work has existed primarily and sometimes entirely on websites like Bandcamp. The throwaway culture of the internet has allowed him to assume different aliases without them being tied to his more popular monikers.

A prime example would be Thug Isolation by Dale Kruegler & The Missing Felicitys. The webpage states that Kruegler, upon finishing a 3-year stint in a Trinidadian prison and arriving back in the States, joined the “long defunct R&B/soul jazz ensemble ‘Brown Slippers’” to make the album. The punchline is that Kruegler and Miller are one and the same; but the effect of confusion the project educes would be lost if he weren’t able to use the anonymity of the internet to his advantage.

Perhaps the most interesting angle of Miller’s exploration of identity is how his recent projects have subverted the core philosophy of the genre they exist under. It's arguable as to whether it’s as much of a necessity as it used to be, but authenticity is still hugely important in hip-hop: 2015’s feud between Meek Mill and Drake is just one example of how seriously the accusation of inauthenticity is taken.

“Whereas traditional hip-hop trajectories often display ever-increasing climbs of braggadocio, later Lil Ugly Mane projects do the opposite”

What’s peculiar then is that the lyrics of Mista Thug Isolation, the most well received Lil Ugly Mane project, depict a lifestyle so outrageously overblown it's hard to tell whether they register as parody, homage, or both. One thing that’s obvious however, is that they don't reflect Miller's life in the slightest. But the authenticity here isn't to the human behind the constructed identity, it's to the identity itself. While speaking about graffiti in the past, Miller has referenced the power of being able to tag a name and have it speak for itself. This perfectly captures one of the underlying currents of his philosophy: the artistic persona is more important than the person making the art.

Whereas traditional hip-hop trajectories often display ever-increasing climbs of braggadocio, later Lil Ugly Mane projects do the opposite, unravelling his inflated persona and providing much-needed context for his parodic lyrics. On Doing An Evil Deed Blues, the single which announced the end of the Lil Ugly Mane project, features a rare depiction of Miller as himself, as well as a heart-felt ode to the genre. On the track he contrasts a youth spent yearning for fame with his eventual discontent towards the process. The most telling line of the song asks: “So hows it been 40 years and all we fucking rap about is weapons?”. Here we see Miller re-contextualise the hyperbolic lyrics of Mista Thug Isolation, and the Lil Ugly Mane persona, not as a parody, but as cultural commentary, highlighting exactly how ridiculous and stagnant certain trends in hip-hop can be.

Despite increased exposure, it's clear that there are caveats to Miller's success. Lines like “A couple labels asked me if I want to sign/But rapping ain't my grind, I just used to like to rhyme” indicate his displeasure with popularity; and when this line is contrasted with one such as “[I] Spit so much I drowned before the drought ever came”, you can see how the burden of his Lil Ugly Mane identity has weighed on the things he enjoys. The best illumination of his uneasiness regarding the release of music and reality of being a popular musician, however, comes in the form of the album artwork to his 2011 release Playaz Circle: Pre Meditation.

The cover features an image of Günter Brus’ Strangulation, in which a naked Brus is suspended above a woman, also naked. Brus co-founded Viennese Actionism, an art movement which rejected the commodification and ego of art, favouring instead the process of creation and its transgressive qualities.

This love of the process over the product clearly rings true to Miller, who stated in a rare interview that “Making the cover is the best part of making music. I feel like I've started projects in the past just cause I had made a cover and wanted to use it for something.” His Third Side of Tape trilogy also points this way, as the collection comprises of demos created as far back as the 90s, that don’t flow as an album but instead track his progression as an artist.

To the Actionists, the body itself became a tool for creating art – self-mutilation and even the ingestion of excrement were elements of their art. And though Miller may not share the same predilection for pain and punishment, it is apparent that he shares the same appreciation for shock value, and the same admiration for the belief that the human behind the art is irrelevant; all that matters are the emotions conveyed and the art itself

Sponsored links