If grime is a prizefight, then Manga Saint Hilare is the people’s champion. Known initially for his rapid-fire verse on scene classic ‘When I’m Ere’, he’s spent the past eight years becoming one of the genre’s most revered emcees, all thanks to a focused approach to music that places inward-looking lyricism over empty hype.
Since adding the Saint Hilare suffix in 2014, Manga has released nine vocal projects, performed headline shows, dabbled in production, and even released NFTs of his own artwork. An independent artist in the truest sense, comfortable with taking risks, experimenting, and baring his deepest thoughts on his records, I wanted to look back over his discography and look at some of the themes explored in his music and how he’s developed them. For clarity, the piece will only include the records released as Manga Saint Hilare, so singles, instrumental EPs and 2019’s “We Need to Look After Us”, released with Murkage Dave, do not feature here.
New Age Cool Shit
“Lunchtime At Art School” is the first entry to Manga’s post name change discography. Released in 2014, it features instrumentals from a wide range of producers and additional insights from singer-songwriter JGrrey, now a constant feature of the Manga Saint Hilare back catalogue. “Lunchtime…” is rough around the edges, sure, but it’s the work of an artist experimenting with new ideas and seeing what sticks. On ‘New Age Cool Shit’, Manga talks about life as an independent musician while stressing the importance of being yourself as the track moves forward. It’s delivered with a wink and a nod, and while ‘New Age Cool Shit’ lacks the polish of what would come later, the level-headed and relatable lyrics found in his later work are all on show here.
Poetry & Politics
In Manga’s interview with The Art of Grime back in April 2020, he said: “I’m just trying to tell my story as much as I can and explain my mindset”. That was concerning 2020’s “Make It Out Alive”, but it’s something he’s been doing since “Lunchtime at Art School”, albeit on a smaller scale. In the opening moments of ‘Poetry & Politics’, he says: “even if it don’t make sense to them, it’ll make sense to me”. The track is about making art in the backdrop of traditional industry structures that may stifle creativity, but it’s also about Manga’s awareness of the challenges of being independent, putting them on record and out of his mind. Much like ‘New Age Cool Shit’, ideas that would be refined later are present in his early work.
The pursuit of self-awareness has been a repeated theme in Manga’s music. The final track on “Lunchtime at Art School” — titled ‘Somewhere’ — introduces this concept with the: lyric “I was so unaware I was lost, I dunno where I remembered it began to end, or where I clocked on I was off track”. It’s delivered over a hazy instrumental, and as the track continues, Manga details knowing that one path wasn’t for him, yet not knowing which road he’d eventually go down. “Somewhere” is an early showcase of Manga displaying vulnerability in his music.
Summer 2015’s “The Reluctant Adventurer” continues the path that “Lunchtime at Art School” carved out: differing production, pensive lyricism and further insights from JGrrey. The project’s opening track, ‘Current Mood’, features Manga dealing with his mental state. He can’t quell his head-spinning thoughts, getting caught further in the web of overthinking. Trap drums and silky melodies are his launchpads, and while it’s a beat you likely wouldn’t hear him on today, the overarching idea of explaining his mindset is clear.
Fast forward to winter 2015, and Manga drops “White Jean Suit Confidence”. It’s the first full-length project with now long-time collaborator Lewi B; the record leaves behind the scattergun approach to instrumental choices and zeroes in on a pure grime sound. While the mixing is spotty, the project benefits from a more focused approach, and that focus is something Manga would become known for later. Most of the tracks in this list focus on the ex-Roll Deep emcee’s growing ability to synthesise his thoughts onto a song, but it’s important to remember he’s lethal on the mic. On ‘Uh Oh’, he wields the microphone like a swordsman in battle, emphasising the first part of each syllable for maximum speaker impact.
The quality goes up a level with “Outbursts from The Outskirts”. The delivery is sharper, and the features are bigger. “Different Pattern” — featuring JME and President T — is a microcosm of Manga’s approach to his work. Dissatisfied with the original version on his previous project, “White Jean Suit Confidence”, Manga decided to beef up the track’s sound quality and draft in some big-name features for the updated version. The original sounds flat, the updated version sounds alive. Its video game sounds ring out through the speakers, while all emcees sound clear on the mic. The improvements paid off, as ‘Different Pattern’ earned playlisting on Reprezent Radio, standing as one of his best-known tracks to date.
“Outbursts From the Outskirts” has weapons-grade grime tunes, musings on independence in life, and stories of relationships gone awry. Sitting alongside these are four interludes titled ‘Outbursts’. It’s a simple concept. Four emcees — Izzie Gibbs, Snowy, Maxsta and Manga himself — lacing an instrumental with soul-searching lyrics. Manga pulls back the curtain in a way he hadn’t previously on ‘Outbursts004’, spitting with no breaks for around three minutes. He describes feeling out of place, explains the pressures of growing up as a young Black kid in the U.K, and warns himself about misplaced anger, closing his soliloquy by telling his listeners never to give up on their dreams.
‘Outbursts004’ is a blistering deconstruction of the thoughts in his mind, an example of why grime fans resonate with his work. He’s unafraid to be so open with his subject matter, making his music easy to engage with if you’ve been through similar experiences.
Manga took the momentum from “Outbursts from The Outskirts” and returned in 2018 with “Outsiders Live Forever”. At this point, all the moving parts had come together, with many regarding his work as some of the genre’s best. “Outsiders…” marks Manga’s first collaboration with Bristol-based producer Sir Hiss, the two looking back to forward by mining one of grime’s most recognisable sound packs for a seven-track EP. ‘Reflect’ — the project’s second track — sees Manga lament societies hyper-speed pace, grapple with the fear of failure, and people out to steal his energy. He’s lucid in delivery, speaking to himself and his listeners with pure clarity.
Sorry For Your Sorrows
April 2020’s “Make It Out Alive” was a tonic to some strange times. A multi-faceted record and his longest yet, “Make It Out Alive”, featured Manga and a who’s-who of grime emcees spitting about life, relationships, and inner-battles, featuring explosive lyricism and crisp production. ‘Sorry For Your Sorrows’ starts as a letter to a former partner, as Manga explains his reasoning for the relationship ending. As the track continues, the letter extends to various family members, with Manga hoping the mistakes he made in those platonic relationships can be healed. Where other emcees would rather drown in their own excess, Manga looks to dig into his own behaviour and see where he can amend his life.
“Glow In the Dark” is the follow up to 2020’s “Make It Out Alive”, building on much of the subject matter explored in his earlier work. ‘DFKM’ — the record’s ninth track — sees Manga watch his friends suffer from depression and wonder if he’s next to grapple with it. After seeing success and receiving praise from his peers and fans alike, it would be tempting to go into cruise control and portray an image of unwavering success. Instead, Manga’s still on the path to understanding his own journey, and a track like ‘DFKM’ shows he’s still willing to bear his own struggles, the main reason why his music resonates so much.
Check out the other articles in this series: