Since rock-critic shmendriks tend to fixate on persona, and since I’m going to do exactly that for most of my space here, let me first take this opportunity to holler at Anthony Davis—a/k/a Minneapolis hip-hop producer Ant. On his duo Atmosphere’s Lucy Ford last year, Ant’s plucked guitars and barrelhouse pianos carved deceptively airy grooves (few rappers, the Alkaholiks included, have ever essayed a track more drunk-sounding than “Guns and Cigarettes”) that kept weightier showpieces like “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands” and “Nothing but Sunshine” light on their feet. God Loves Ugly is more immediately monochromatic, but give the album some time and you’ll hear Ant rough his sound up without losing his style. “The Bass and the Movement” and “Flesh” crush skulls as playfully as Ford loped; “Blamegame” is effortless echo-chamber dub skank; “Breathing” and the single “Modern Man’s Hustle” cut Lucy Ford‘s dreaminess with a tougher groove.
Ant’s mouthpiece, Slug (born Sean Daley), is newly obsessed with hardness as well, tired enough of being pigeonholed as a navel-gazing sad sack that he kicks off track two by offering sucker MCs “a face full of phallus” before mimicking a shocked fan: “Oh my goodness/Slug’s gone and flipped his style/I haven’t heard him act like this in a while.” Those last two words are crucial and a little misleading. As far back as his 1997 debut, Overcast!, made with long-departed co-MC Spawn, Atmosphere’s records have featured plenty of battle-ready rhymes and kind offers to take your girl home. But he’s never been as gleefully vitriolic as on the above quoted “The Bass and the Movement” or “Flesh” (“We came here to slit your throat”) or “One of a Kind”: “One little, two little, three little indie rap/Headphones, backpack, watch them all piggyback.” Like sometime collaborator Aesop Rock rewriting his own “Daylight” (“Life is not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman”) as “Night Light” (“Life’s not a bitch/Life is a bee-yotch“), much of the album finds Slug tensing against underground hip-hop’s self-imposed strictures—or maybe, just maybe, he’s testing his weight to see how comfortably he might fit into a Jay-Z world rather than its shadow.
But is this a good thing? What made Lucy Ford so effective was that it dodged not only hip-hop’s hard-man clichés but also its conscious ones: Like that other thoughtful-slacker classic, 3 Feet High and Rising, the album was humanist without shoving your face in it. On God Loves Ugly, though, Slug’s tough-guy moves sound as pained as De La Soul Is Dead‘s: Sure, he can too throw down like that, and he’s not bad at it, either. But he doesn’t seem to like it much, and it’s hard to believe he’ll be getting many extra points from the mainstream for his trouble.
You know the story: first the breakthrough, then the identity crisis. After Overcast!, 1999’s cassette-only Se7en, and 200 shows a year in any city with a campus turned him into a word-of-mouth sensation, the better-distributed and -publicized Lucy Ford served up an everyman persona equal parts lovelorn poet, peripatetic slacker, drunken bar regular, and class clown. It offered almost no boasting aside from the chorus of “Guns and Cigarettes,” which undercut itself half the time anyway: “I wanna be bigger than Jesus/Bigger than wrestling/Bigger than the Beatles/And bigger than breast implants.” Originally released as two vinyl EPs, the album was messy, and many of its most striking moments were outright bizarre: the roundabout moral lesson of “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands,” the laconically metaphorical “Mama Had a Baby and His Head Popped Off.” But life is pretty messy and bizarre, too, which is one reason the album felt pretty damn lifelike. His details took on a day-to-day inevitability, his Minneapolis specifics translating into universals even if you don’t know that Muddy Waters is a coffeehouse on 24th and Lyndale.
God Loves Ugly, on the other hand, feels like hip-hop: the brusque party cuts, the embattled, puffed-up defensiveness, the slightly stagy sense that Slug’s soul-baring tendencies have taken on now that he’s gotten our attention without having to fight quite so hard for it. (I’ll pass on that phallus, thanks.) If gleeful vitriol is fairly novel for Slug, then pained vitriol is the man’s stock-in-trade. “Fuck You Lucy” continues and hopefully puts the lid on the relationship his last album chronicled as obsessively, if not as specifically, as an early Joni Mitchell album might (and in case you wonder how he really feels about her, just say “Lucy Ford” several times fast). He also seems to have curbed his wandering tendencies, having previously written so many songs about aimless road trips that he probably wishes he’d called himself Dashboard Confessional.
Still, if Christopher Carrabba can get on MTV, why shouldn’t Sean Daley? “What if Slug blows up?” the rapper kept repeating onstage at the Knitting Factory two Tuesdays ago. “It’s not about whether he does or not—it’s about what happens then.” He then performed “Shrapnel,” which reveals what else the MC is tensing against: “My posse’s full of women/Computer nerds and thugs/Much to my dismay, I’m none of the above.” He seems to both revel in the predicament and resent it: “There’s too many fucking white people here,” he boomed midway through the Knit show; the crowd tittered uneasily. Later, during a mock “battle” between himself and touring sidekick Crescent Moon (of Minneapolis-to-NY transplants Oddjobs), he air-typed a mailing list entry about the competition. But jokes or no jokes, braggadocio or no braggadocio, the lad’s still got image problems. “Still going, still maintaining,” he raps on “Give Me.” “Still standing in the land of snow and purple rain, and/I’m still waiting for my dates to kiss me or slap me/’Cause there ain’t no way I can be happy when I’m happy.” From “Hair”: “I wear my scars like the rings on a pimp.” Slug may blow up, but he’ll never need to write a song called “Hate Me Now,” because he’s only too happy to do it for you.