THERE ARE FEW THINGS more rewarding than settling the score. To paraphrase an old saying, writing well is the best revenge and Atmosphere's Slug knows how to level the playing field. On the indie hiphop star's great new record, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, it's all about spitting powerful, vindictive rhymes.
A slug is an ugly creature. The subject matter of You Can't Imagine isn't much prettier. Take "That Night," a song about a young girl who was raped and killed after an Atmosphere show in Albuquerque (true story), where Slug sings, "With a prior convicted sex offense against a four-year-old/why'd they let you live?" The track finishes with a threat: "You're locked up for now/you have no more chances to steal the children's laughs/and if you ever find God/better pray to her and ask that we never cross paths." It fades out under a woman's wail. In fact, throughout You Can't Imagine, producer Ant uses heavy gospel vocals with instrumentation layered over hard-snap hiphop beats. (On this tour Atmosphere's showing up with a live band: bass, guitar, keyboards, and percussion.)
One of the most successful underground hiphop acts to ever come up out of the Midwest, Atmosphere started to build their fanbase in 1997. Hype built on the back of Slug's emotional truth-telling lyrics and the girls started showing up in their hometown of Minneapolis to buy tickets. Maybe it's because Slug doesn't self-aggrandize—at least compared to others in the hiphop game—that made it easier for Atmosphere to come up without major magazine support or heavy radio play. Of course, there is strutting, and his delivery, which is often angry and self-empowered (imagine a raised fist and the base of a microphone tipped to the sky) adds an element of swagger. Yet there aren't any songs about Escalades or gold chains on You Can't Imagine. Slug doesn't need to sell or perpetuate an image—his lyrics are ironclad, his work speaks for itself.
It's well known that Atmosphere has a strong female following. Slug writes well about relationships: with clarity, with emotion, without all the posturing typically associated with his genre. His songs are personal—written as letters to the people in his life. It's easy to imagine that he writes them and then goes back and changes the names. On "Angelface" he comes clean about an old girlfriend: "She turned me on to music that I never heard before/she told me stories from a cup I had to learn to pour/and I don't know what hurted more/professional journals or perpetual burnholes, scarring up the dirty floor." The line leaves a perfect image of smoldering cigarette holes in apartment carpet, similar to how it feels when she leaves after stopping by to get her stuff back.
Even when you're not listening for the story or the meaning, Slug has a sharp sense of the sound of his words. For proof, I'll leave you with the great line that sounds perfect as it rolls off his tongue. "Take credit for anything embedded in the edit/as long as you meant it when you said it."