Illmana’s latest EP, ‘Wake Up!’, is a breathtaking display of unconventionality and hip-hop maximalism
Illmana is a 24-year old rapper and visual artist based out of Portland, Oregon. A member of the tight-knit collective Enyu, home of several talented artists and producers, Illmana’s journey with the team started as a visual artist before the group motivated her to pursue a musical career in 2019. Most of her music prior to 2021 has been wiped from the Internet, a decision made due to both the evolution of her artistry and her personal growth since those initial endeavors. Influenced by a wide array of artists– citing wordsmiths such as Earl Sweatshirt and Lil Ugly Mane, as well as the Chicago drill pioneer Chief Keef– her work pulls from many different corners of hip hop while generally avoiding the hyper-derivative pitfalls many underground artists fall victim to. Illmana weaves her influences fluently through her music, hard-hitting verses and catchy hooks backed by the musical prowess of Enyu’s producers.
On this project, titled ‘Wake Up!’, Illmana pushes aside convention, delivering an army of dexterous flows and unmitigated energy over the course of eight-and-a-half minutes. Featuring production from Scott Delta and ZiDiil of Enyu, each song is saturated with chest-rattling basslines, uniquely bouncy drum programming, and a whirlwind of frenetic cadences. She’s a wonderfully gifted rapper, unafraid to experiment with sound and song structure, while still maintaining the contagious catchiness of her earlier work. Her 2022 project with ZiDiil, ‘BROADCAST001’, is a great example of unconventional structures blended with earworm grooves and sharp lyricism, and her sound only grows more focused with this solo endeavor.
The opening track, ‘Cyanide!’, starts off simple: a dizzying lead melody wrapped around an uneasy chord progression, Illmana’s pitched voice making an appearance in the mix. Once the drums hit, the journey begins. Masterful drum programming from Scott Delta and ZiDiil accentuates Illmana’s drowsy flow throughout the intro; the vocal effects help create an almost-claustrophobic atmosphere, obscuring her lyrics at times while adding a unique undercurrent to the emotive qualities of her voice. A brief lull in the instrumental gives the illusion that the track has reached its conclusion, leaving the listener almost no time to recover before the beat drops once more, with the artist delivering an exceptionally passionate verse that stretches the length of the song. There is an immediate contrast as her dreamy downtempo cadence crashes into one of the rawest, most heartfelt vocal performances I’ve heard in recent memory. Illmana’s voice is teetering on a scream as she belts each bar, every syllable delivered with the force of a knock-out punch, octave-shifted vocals bringing her to a near-growl at times. There’s no mistaking the passion here; you can feel the emotion, the pain, and the effort put into this track with every single bar. A vocal sample surrounded by warm-sounding chords plays after her verse, leading into the next song.
The song ‘Zoinks!’ is a more uptempo cut from the project, with Illmana invoking the spirit of Yeezus-era Ye through her confident delivery, witty lyricism, and strong vocal presence. Sparse drums and a rattling bassline provide a bouncy rhythm under Illmana’s sharp flow, with a distorted lead synth acting as the sole melodic element for the first portion of the track. The room in the instrumentation allows Illmana to float deftly between different pockets of the beat, and float she does. She navigates braggadocio with ease– tongue-in-cheek bars like “Sometimes I lie to bitches, call it a strange truth” and clever flexes like “Blood diamonds on my sleeve just might bleed through” are scattered throughout her minute-long verse, punctuated with an absolute earworm of a hook that repeats throughout the latter half of the track. It’s rare to find an artist that can pull from their influences in a transparent way while still having such an original sound, especially in the underground scene(s), but Illmana pulls it off.
The closing track, ‘Mix It Up!’ (featuring ZiDiil), is an industrial hip-hop symphony. The undulating bassline and punchy drums create a dense wall of sound that acts as a backdrop to the savant-level performances from both Illmana and ZiDiil, occupying every area of the stereo field with radiant energy. Drum fills are abundant throughout the song with nearly every bar punctuated by a storm of knocking kicks and snares, but this isn’t to the songs detriment– as with the first two tracks, the mix is so clean that it easily allows the artists’ vocals to cut through the cacophony of instrumentation. There is Gogeta-level chemistry between ZiDiil and Illmana on this cut, with ZiDiil’s looser delivery providing an excellent contrast to Illmana’s fierce shout. ‘Mix it Up!’ is a prime example of hip-hop maximalism executed perfectly, both in performance and production.
Illmana’s ‘Wake Up!’ is a modern masterpiece. Her artistic ability knows no bounds, and she has crafted one of the most engaging, creative projects I’ve heard in a very long time with Scott Delta and ZiDiil. Every aspect of this project is executed well, and only four years into her musical career, her vision is more clear and focused than most mainstays in the underground scene. Illmana set the bar high with her earlier work, from the technical ability displayed in her performances to the exceptional engineering work and production from Enyu, and still managed to exceed all expectations with this EP in just three songs. I believe that unconventional sounds like Illmana’s will dominate in the coming years, and I look forward to seeing how her output evolves over time.
- Steve Warner / xoarctic
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