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
For too long now a pesky urban legend has been circulating, the tale of a musical mutation, preciously dubbed "emo-rap," supposedly foisted on our nation's impressionable young backpackers. Like the myth about naked ladies being hunted down with paintball guns, the phantasmal "rise of emo-rap" seems so credible, even inevitable, no one bothers to investigate the details. Tug at the loose threads, though, and the pseudo-genre unravels faster'n Rivers Cuomo's sweater. In fact, the only emo-rap suspect consistently rounded up is Minneapolis MC Slug, who goes out of his way to mention the genre in interviews just to bitch about it, a denial that's probably the emoest thing about Atmosphere.
After all, emo is as much a slur as a genre--as Nick Catucci once wrote, "No one likes to be called a pussy"--so last year on Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly, Slug went rabid with the battle rhymes, as though to demonstrate an allegiance to hip hop no one really doubted. Atmosphere doesn't "transcend" hip hop; Slug and producer Ant just insist that the music live up to their often unobserved principles. Though hip hop's obsessed with self, most MCs are so hung up on restating conventional boasts that they express no personality at all. But when Slug drops lies like "My life is as trite as your favorite rap record," he isn't being self-deprecating, he's being dodgy and ironic: He creates as three-dimensional a persona as exists in any genre today. Though hip hop's obsessed with sex, most of its MCs sound like they couldn't find a clitoris with a magnifying glass and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. But when Slug boasts about not having groupies, it's a tricky little come-on: He's undie rap's premier heartthrob, precisely because his lyrics relentlessly examine what makes the ladies tick.
Still, as with most wily seducers, Slug's investigation of the opposite sex says more about himself than his lust objects, perhaps never more so than on the new Seven's Travels (Rhymesayers). Whether dedicating "Good Times (Sick Pimpin')" "to all the depressed women in the house" or observing "Man, fuck the permit, I know where I'm-a park tonight" when things seem to be going well in a new lady friend's place on "Shoes," the effect is consistently to create an image of the guy with the mic. This time out, that MC is recast as a quick-stepping world traveler, his disses less acerbic than winningly goofy ("Stop writing raps and go play volleyball"), his self-laceration replaced, on tracks like "Gotta Lotta Walls," with calmer insights into his own defense mechanisms. The harshest song, tellingly, is "Trying to Find a Balance" which may quote Ice Cube's iconically defiant "last words" ("Fuck all y'all") but is ultimately dedicated to achieving some sort of sanity rather than burning out on rage. Ant's music is correspondingly brighter, fuller, and more playful, integrating well-chosen sonic details, whether compressed soul vocals or distended guitar licks, into a groove that rolls along more often than it slams the beat home.
All of which has zilch to do with the indulgent bloodletting of emo, a genre as rife with cliché as hip hop and rarely more honest about women or expressive of individuality. A confessional pinup like Dashboard Confessional is so deliberately vague about his love life in song that all I can tell you about him for sure is that some faithless chick once left a bunch of hair around his apartment. (This made him sad.) But like all half-truths, the emo-rap hoax is onto something in a backward kind of way. So when it comes to Atmosphere's fans, emo is a racially coded euphemism, the flip side of "urban." It's not just that white kids listen to Atmosphere--more white kids probably listen to DMX, who's more emo-rap than any Anticon stammerer--it's the kind of white kids who are listening. Then again, it's also the kind of black kids. Race hardly enters Slug's rhymes, which is only fair, since except for the casual "nigga" here or there, most black MCs skirt the issue themselves. And in any case, emo-rap is our way of pretending not to talk about race so we can actually not talk about class.
"College rap" is too broad a term for the new indie hip hop, but its fan base is urban and artsy and bookish whether matriculated or not--in a word, bohemian. And I suspect for them what's attractive about Slug isn't his sensitivity so much as his awareness of his own insensitivity, not his vulnerability so much as his ambivalent way of articulating it. His lyrics are a pissy acknowledgement and analysis of the passive-aggressive tendencies that most dumped losers with guitars take unselfconsciously as their inalienable right. It's hip hop for sure, but while undoubtedly many heads are listening to Slug for what the mainstream isn't saying, I suspect that as Atmosphere's audience grows, even more fans are coming to hear what's been left unsaid by indie rockers. And yeah, that means you, emo boy.