By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
God Loves Ugly
Uh...yo. Slug's all mad new and shit. You give him a minute and he'll smoke like no MC smokes. Or maybe the secret is that he'll smoke what no MC smokes: Namely, cigarettes. He talks about 'em all the time, pronouncing the word "cigeritt" as if it's just one more hip-hop signifier in need of a personalized repo job.
And it often feels a bit weird: Cigarettes signify rock, especially punk rock. Paul Westerberg reached for a refreshing Kool for that ever-charming lumpenfuckup un-charisma. Jay-Z, on the other hand, prefers the hip-hop companion "weed," deployed to prove he's a criminally minded bad-ass unable to countenance one compromising pinch of legality messing with that proverbial steez. Or maybe the steez is literal? I can never keep these usage issues straight. Which is just fine with me, because we'll have no further need for egregious hip-hop references today: For the purposes of this report, ol' Sluggo--certainly the greatest Minneapolis mic rocker since Saint Paul himself--is just as punk as dearly departed Dee Dee Ramone, and just as committed.
For proof of punkdom, please check the following from "Breathing": "I got a weak will/I've got bad nerves and I can't keep still." And like 40 bazillion punks before him, Slug's primary jive is the old hey, check it out, my life's fucked up. Not much you can do with that one in 2002, not unless you're Ashanti or something. And yet Slug rings it up like a new morning on Atmosphere's way uppity third record God Loves Ugly (Rhymesayers).
I'd argue that that's not exactly the most appropriate title for a dude who's so piss-hot with spaghetti-strap America these days--though the women who pop up on the record to hand our hero his lunch whenever he gets cocky seem to suggest that his relative heat is still up for discussion. You can't really blame the ladies. Dude unburdens his underfed oversoul like he's paying us by the hour. And therapy raps like "I got a sickness/It feels like love/It's not contagious/Take off the gloves," make the guy in Bright Eyes sound like a Big Tymer. So fire off a candygram to beatmiser Ant, who lightens the mourner with everything from "Shook Ones" minimalism to reggae to lite rock. And be glad that Slug's insecurity about being a hot boy in an all-white scene causes him to overcompensate with just enough hug-a-thug hardness to rise above the indie-rap juice pack. He is wired, they're too obtuse, try to stop him, it's no use, as Black Flag might sing.
Actually, that's not really the right analogy. The punk Slug most reminds me of is sad-boy-for-life Richard Hell, existentially strip-mined beauty queen of the CBGB scene. Both began trying to hotwire a nihilist tradition. (Dick dug Nietzschean power games, Slug has traced his "emo-rap" lineage back to 2Pac.) Both yanked new meaning out of the abyss. Hell's "Blank Generation" invited neo-nihils to place whatever meaning they'd like into the blankness of their debased 1970s cultural inheritance. ("You can take it or leave it each time," he declared.) For Slug, it's more complex, primarily because he's still making it up as he goes along. That's the beauty of being our first Midwestern hip-hop punk: Nothing is solved, everything is up for grabs.
Yet, like the Dickster, Slug's genius is for flipping his soul-searing abjection into sex appeal. Check this chant from a recent Atmosphere show: "Fuck Slug!" Hee hee. Now check out God Loves Ugly's "Bass and the Movement," a nice little headbobber that's a tad too sexy for the indie-ground. Slug implores us to follow him "from the island of Fiji to the bottom of Christina Ricci." Which is so, so indie-rap. But in a verse he's making noise "for the women who swallow stuff" and warning Internet byters, "you can go ahead and download my dick to a file." Offensive? Not really. Any bitch-baiting is but a mere formal trope to remind us he's as loyal to the debased American dream of "rap" as is the Church of the Immaculate Hip Hop. He doesn't pretend he's a vegan and he doesn't dry-hump Philip K. Dick. He's as Salinger-scarred as Jonathan Richman. His rapper's Tao of the Ho is probably missing a few chapters because he found it on the sidewalk. The ingenious story-rap "Hair" starts out with flirting in a bar and ends with his own death (and his ex-girlfriend Lucy ought to get a restraining order ASAP). Yet he's one of the only rappers around that actually thinks "she gives good brain" is a double entendre, and I'll take what I can get.
What's meaningful is that here's a guy who doesn't go to the playbook as often as he could, which is pretty rare. For reasons social, geographical, and (sort of) racial, his impossible relationship to hip hop keeps shocking him into the next verse: Oh shit, I do this, what next? Compare him to his underground pals El-P or Aesop Rock and you'll be fine, 'cuz they're fine too.
I'd rather line him up with Baltimore cheese doodle B Rich, whose single "Whoa Now" loops The Jeffersons theme song into a chalice-raisin' ode to up-from-nuthin' mobility. Or Roxanne Shanté, who was so naive she didn't know you weren't supposed to dis KRS-One. Or the myriad crews on the Africa Raps compilation. Yeah, I guess I wish Slug would take his dick out of the meat tenderizer every once in a while: Victimization spiels can get as grim as gunsmoke. But on "Breathing," when Ant hooks up Slug singing, "Do you carry a gun/I guess it all depends on where you come from/Surroundings are gonna dictate the needs/I'm out, I wanna live around lakes and trees," it's the sound of someone who isn't afraid to man up and rename his world. Right there, right before your eyes. And he can take it or leave it each time.