In 2008, three MCs and two producers launched the Baltimore hip-hop label Mania Music Group. And true to the Internet savvy era of independent hip hop in which it was born, Mania has been giving away a boatload of music online, over four hours’ worth, in the past two years to get its name out there: label samplers, mixtapes, singles, solo EPs by each rapper and an outtakes collection. Having established them as a unique force in the local rap scene, Mania Music Group is finally asking their fan base to plunk down 10 dollars for Welcome To The Audience, their first official album, out on June 15th.
Mania’s in-house production team, Brandon “BeaLack” Lackey and Dwayne “Headphonemusik” Lawson, have masterminded a label sound that’s distinctive but all over the map, combining drum machines, samples and live instruments in ways that are never quite modern nor retro, neither slick nor raw. And it’s an aesthetic that suits the label’s roster of rappers, all of whom contain their own contradictions. Dappa!!! Dan Midas made his name on the local battle rap circuit, before fashioning a more colorful, eclectic sound and image. Kane Mayfield is a New York transplant with the soul of a political revolutionary and the personality of a standup comic. Rapman Ron G is the group’s youngest rapper but has an assured, soft-spoken demeanor.
And then there’s Milly July, a female MC whose addition to the Mania fold was only announced a few months ago, with a handful of tracks with the rest of the group preceding Audience’s release. She gets the very first verse of the album, on the intro posse cut, and hits the ground running with a confident flow. But without the benefit of a lot of previous material to familiarize herself with, Milly July still blends into the background of the album. It doesn’t help that she saves her best solo cut, “Ihide,” for near the end of the album, riding a funky breakbeat with introspective first person rhymes.
Each of the other three rappers is outstanding with at least one of their solo tracks. Rapman Ron G nearly steals the album on “Rock n Roll,” with a roaring delivery, a dynamic hook, and a beat so hard that the snare drum alone could set off a mosh pit. On the title track, Kane Mayfield humorously lays out the explanation of the term “Welcome To The Audience,” as a command for any wack rappers to get off the stage and leave hip hop to the professionals. And “U Might Think” is a bleak, harrowing look at the darker side of Midas’ psyche that he’s only occasionally shown in his music: “My fam think I’m anti-social/‘Cause I don’t even speak to the ones I was close to/My mom’s pissed ‘cause she can’t do shit for me/The way I’m goin’ I ain’t gonna live past 40.”
Unfortunately, with each member of the Mania getting three solo showcases apiece, that only leaves a handful of posse cuts on which to display a group dynamic, and the chemistry between these very different MCs sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. “Love Thang,” the lead single released on Valentine’s Day, is bland by Mania standards, and kind of a waste of one of the album’s few guest spots, by Eze Jackson of the hip hop band Soul Cannon. Fortunately, Jackson gets another chance to shine a couple of tracks later on Mayfield’s political “Reagannomics.” And the other non-Mania guest, Baltimore rapper Greenspan, is a perfect fit on the catchy, thoughtful second single “Study My Dreams.”
After some hits and misses, Welcome To The Audience pulls it all together toward the end with “The Story,” a six-minute posse cut. Arguably the album’s centerpiece, the song tells a loose story about how each of Mania’s MCs was an outcast in other crews and labels, and each found their voice once the group came together. Though they’ve toned down some of the more diverse and experimental production styles and high concept songs that separated them from the pack on earlier releases, Welcome is a strong testament to the unusual and unexpected charms of Mania Music Group’s approach to hip hop.
Welcome To The Audience is available now, at your convenience.