“It’s been a long time coming” are the first words that spring forth from the mouth of Milwaukee rapper bliss & alice (the nom de plume of Brandon Thomas) on his second album, November’s Mama Tried. It’s preceded by an ambling, ambient beat that slowly lurches forward until the emcee kicks things into gear nearly two minutes into the song. That opening line not only brings to mind the extended gap since his debut, 2014’s fiery Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape, but also showcases a newfound quality in bliss & alice’s repertoire: restraint. It’s a new feature in his rapidly expanding skillset that injects warmth, emotion and mystery into the album.
“I think something that’s on my side is being patient with my process and putting together work that stands that much time,” Thomas says. “Genuinely, I think it’s patience that pays off. It was never about commercial success or really taking the hype and going with it. A lot of the hype died and a lot of fans are now listening to other things. That’s how music should be. You should move forward and listen to what’s current. I’m just really blessed and happy that people still listen.”
Mama Tried represents a big creative change for bliss & alice. On Poetry Volume One the rapper declared “lyrical warfare,” shelling out verses and verses with ease and with such depth that they took a long time to unravel. “I was deep into college, had just gotten out of the dorms and was navigating a life as a young adult with no real supervision—access to whatever I wanted. [I had] a lot of time on my hands to think and create, just to explore who I was as a writer,” Thomas remembers. “I think it came out raw.” But on Mama Tried he takes his foot off the gas and lets the ghostly atmosphere almost envelope his words. It’s a much more emotional and vulnerable album that makes the pain and loss that’s brewing underneath the surface feel palpable.
“Sometimes, especially in rap, you can kind of get lost in the idea that the artist has it all figured out,” Thomas says. “I think that stems from a lot of us being confident and forward. It is this personal take on life and reality. It’s all personal and I guess that’s why it took so long.”
The standout track on Mama Tried is “London,” which received a strong response online that surprised even Thomas. It’s the most listened to song on Soundcloud from the album with more than 16,000 plays. It’s where he proved that his strength behind the microphone shouldn’t be limited to simply rapping. On “London,” he’s singing his own hooks.
“I’m from a part of the world where rap is not the central focus of people’s musical tastes,” the Wausau native says. “I sang in choir. I always had very musical friends. I loved to sing and I like to pull that out of myself. Those are the moments when I feel most vulnerable. Most people think of rappers as rappers and want you to stay in your lane. But I love to sing and I think I’ll be doing more singing in the future.”
Process remains a crucial motivation for bliss & alice. Even if the world doesn’t respond to Mama Tried, he says he was able to work through some problems he was facing during the album’s production.
“At the end of the day, I hope I walk away with something that helps somebody or touches somebody,” Thomas says. “The entire process helped me, I know that. Everything beyond that is icing. I’m cool with what happens to the music after it’s out of my hands. Once it switches hands, I get to breathe and just kind of watch it.”
bliss & alice performs on Saturday, March 4 at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St., as part of Noh Life’s Tons of Friends 01 event with Boom Boom Klap, Kiings and SistaStrings. Doors open at 10 p.m.