Breaking the Mold: On Manga Saint Hilaire’s ‘Make it Out Alive’

Alex de Lacey goes in on the NW London MC's latest full-length.
By    April 22, 2020

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Alex de Lacey bought several proper pairs of trainers to step out in when quarantine is over.

Manga Saint Hilaire is a self-proclaimed outsider. Born and raised in North West London, his formative years as an MC in the early 2000s were spent solo. Inspired by fellow West London artists at local showcase events such as BiggaFish and brought up on the bashment-infused sounds of Heartless Crew, he never had a collective to call his own. “No one really rated me. No one wanted me to be a part of their crew”, he recalled to Rinse FM’s DJ Argue earlier this year. “I wasn’t big on my estate. Really I was by myself.” 

Unperturbed, he continued to hone his craft, perfecting his witty, multisyllabic flow pattern while developing a hardiness through clashing anyone who crossed his path. In 2004, he received a call that would change everything. “What crew are you in,?” said the voice. “None,” Manga replied. “Well, now you’re in Roll Deep.” This cursory exchange with Wiley was followed by directions to a studio in Limehouse, East London, where Roll Deep were recording their debut project In At The Deep End. A hotbed of creativity, its neighboring room was booked out by Ruff Sqwad, with Tinchy Stryder and co. refining their ideas for the landmark Guns ’N’ Roses Volume 1 mixtape After a few weeks settling in, Manga laid down a 16-bar verse on In At The Deep End’s lead single ‘When I’m ‘ere’. The rest is history. 

Despite securing global success and multiple number 1s with the Roll Deep Entourage, humility and perceptive vision has always colored Manga’s candor and craft. 2007’s “Respect Us,” off Roll Deep’s Rules and Regulations Vol. 1 is an anthem for lost youth, lamenting a rift between Blairite policy and the hopes and dreams of a forgotten generation, while his collaborative work with Welsh quintet Astroid Boys and The Bug (Kevin Martin) demonstrates an enviable versatility. In 2014, he expanded his stage name from Manga to Manga Saint Hilaire, re-rendering a teenage MC’s passion for Japanese cartoons as a fully-fledged persona, and in 2017 his first full length LP Outbursts from the Outskirts was released.

Produced entirely by Lewi B, the project expressed deep ambivalence for the music industry, and his need to be self-sufficient. To this day he still sends out his own promos. Three years and two more projects later, Make It Out Alive carries a similar sense of self-determinism, while touching on a vast array of themes, such as love, endurance and faith.

Its opener, “Escape Plan” captures a distinct sense of isolation. Rendered on what sounds like a toy piano, its falling chords fittingly accompany a flashback to the confines of his adolescent bedroom. “I was in the smallest room in my mum’s house looking for space”, Manga reminisces. “I think I need to escape”. Here, the claustrophobia of London at the turn of the millennium is in full view. Dr. Joy White has written on the “corralling [of] young black lives into ever smaller spaces” through an unhappy betrothal of postcode wars and poverty. The former is particularly relevant for Saint Hilaire, who spent much of his early career geographically ostracized; from both grime’s epicenter in East London and his own crew Roll Deep. “Escape Plan” establishes a modus operandi for the album. An urge to spread wings and break free, and a need to win the battle with his own brain. To “make it out alive” by any means necessary. 

Its second track, “Fools Gold” is focused on growth. In Manga’s opening gambit he asserts that “you can’t overcome what you look past, you never understand because you don’t ask. I tell my bruddas you don’t grow in the dark.” The production from Croydon’s Lxury mutates and blooms. Starting with a stilted groove, its bold low end makes way for simmering synth patterns and ephemeral string lines that possess a musicality reminiscent of the Boxed movement, headed up by Slackk and Mr Mitch.

While contemplation may be a running theme, Make It Out Alive is by no means maudlin. Manga has a plan. And for much of the project a heartfelt sense of confronting the past is paired with a need to the make the most of moving forward. This juxtaposition is nailed down on “Sorry For Your Sorrows,” which features a hook from Jafro, a young and multi-talented MC and singer from Leicester. His Bl@ckbox freestyle from 2018 stands just shy of half a million views. On this track, Manga’s apology to an old flame is uplifted through an acceptance of his imperfections and the promise of tomorrow. 

It’s through faith in the future that the project’s best moments are made manifest. Manga’s investment in young MCs is apparent across his discography, and Make It Out Alive stands out through shining a spotlight on fresh faces. Fellow West Londoner Raheim’s production for ‘Safety in Numbers’ is stand-out. Soaked in RnG sensibilities with a killer vocal flip, the instrumental is met by a playful swagger from Manga, who rises to the occasion with a deft and choppy flow, that is both redolent of Dizzee Rascal circa Boy In Da Corner, and Manga’s own early releases with Wiley and J2K

Nottingham’s Snowy and 18-year old firecracker SBK both feature on “Duhhmb,” with the teenager’s skippy hook and Snowy’s rapid-fire delivery tearing through Lewi B’s breakneck production. At the track’s end, Snowy calls out: “Hey Mangs, I don’t know if you could put something in the track somewhere but, man don’t listen to none of them olders and that fake advice fam, man ain’t stupid.’”Content on carving his own path, Snowy’s point is clear and oddly prescient, with many of grime’s elder statesman taking to Twitter to air 5G conspiracies over the past few weeks. 

Fellow South Londoner Novelist appears “Thoughts and Prayers,” produced by his brother Prem. Whereas pockets of reflection run through the album, this track is transcendent. Prem’s production is austere, with plaintive choral lines and militaristic drums, while Novelist and Manga attack. Nov’s opening couplet “I’m here and unreplaceable, original still unremakable” contorts and expands our earthly lexicon to assert his presence. Later, Manga claims that “they tried to kill me but I’m still here.” This nightmarish appeal to life’s fragility offers a slither of optimism, clutched from hopeless abandon and made anew through faith.

For Novelist, this spiritual direction was evidenced on 2017’s Be Blessed, while Manga’s plea of “we need prayers, we need help” is indicative of how religion is needed in a nation that casts black lives aside and demonizes difference. 

Make It Out Alive isn’t your typical grime project. But that’s what makes it so special. It’s about care, composure and meditation, within a scene where bravado and brazen antagonism typically reign supreme. Growing up in London isn’t easy. But rather than come out fighting, Manga—according to the CD inlay—offers “words and advice.” Last year Manga Saint Hilaire and Murkage Dave asserted that We Need to Look After Us. Make It Out Alive has shown how this might be possible; a call from grime’s vanguard to overcome nostalgic stagnation and push the scene forward.

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