- Keith I. McDonald
Demure, spectacled, short of stature and slightly reserved, this warehouse worker, husband and father isn't someone you'd peg as an entertainer. But on KRCL 90.9 FM's Friday Night Fallout in June, spitting freestyles from his forthcoming album, he exhibited the skills of a lyrical giant with barbaric rhymes and the confidence of a veteran vocalist.
Umang Khosla, aka uMaNg (pronounced YOU-MAHN-GUH), is not only the stage name, but the birth name of one of Utah's best rappers. "In Hindi and Urdu it means 'happiness or enthusiasm,' which is how I approach my passions," he explains. He started rapping at 16, when life started "getting real," and he relied on myriad influences to inspire him and craft his own sound. Among his favorites are Nas, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Eminem, Jay-Z, Elzhi and Phonte, among many others.
Another part of uMaNg's young life that made him constantly turn to rap was the fact that he never settled in one place. Growing up, his family moved around with such frequency that it was hard to connect with his ever-changing group of peers. Luckily, with the internet at his disposal, he was able to connect with people like him from around the world, including eventual collaborators B.B.Z Darney, a rapper from Sweden who he met through YouTube, and the Florida-based artists Hex One, who he met through B.B.Z Darney.
"Hex One and B.B.Z released an album in 2014 called String Theory, which I feature on," he says. "Through that connection is how we started working together.B.B.Z Darney is my partner in crime, the mastermind behind our duo. He's been my producer and brother for eight years now. Not many can say one of our names without mentioning the other's."
And with good reason. Darney's instrumentals are intricate, soulful and rip through your speakers with that boom bap sound, without coming off as formulaic or monotonous. They blend with uMaNg's killer vocals on their upcoming album, Monu-mEnTaL, to be released later this year. "[The] reason for the name is that it basically stands for overcoming the limits that our minds can often put on us," uMaNg says. "We chain and shackle ourselves, fall victim to our own state of mind. This album is me overcoming anxiety and depression that prevents me from doing me, being in my element of creativity." The album joins four other full-lengths that were all released in rapid succession by the dedicated artist: 2011's The First Impression LP, the 2012 follow-up Lasting Impressions, 2013's The Revisited and 2014's The Black Rose Certificate. (All can be found at umang.bandcamp.com.)
The ability to put out albums so consistently is impressive, and so is uMaNg's skill as a rapper while doing so. But without meaningful content beneath that skill, records tend to have a short shelf-life in a music library. uMaNg can rap slow, chop up syllables rapidly, hit you in the feels with punchlines and grip your attention with heartfelt stories about his personal life. The new album features a song called "Papa Bear," a description of a haunting domestic experience that would make Slim Shady's upbringing seem like the Hardy Boys'. "I tried not to judge [my father] in the track. I didn't see the flaw in telling the story, you know? I hadn't told that side of the story [before]. I've touched on it, bits and pieces in past music, but nothing like that—just boiling it down and painting the whole picture," uMaNg says.
uMaNg's familial instability forced him grow up all over the country—in Washington, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey, even across the pond in England—before he settled in Utah. Now, he intends to make use of the connections he made during this peripatetic upbringing to spread his message abroad, a task that includes an upcoming tour overseas. "Germany, France and Spain are amongst my core audience," he says. "I have to get out there."
It's not often that you find a local artist who checks off the boxes of diversity, consciousness and—most important—skills. Spreading culture and diversity through the valley is cool, but by the universally accepted bylaws of the hip-hop culture, if the artist doesn't have skills, they get no props. What we have here is a local artist in whom we can take pride, and one who's well equipped to meet criticism from folks outside of the 'Hive. uMaNg's music serves not only himself and his own need for creative expression, but helps to broaden the reach of our local scene, which is something everyone should be happy and enthusiastic about.