Nowadays, “emo” is at best a convenient tag for music-glossy scribes, and though that truncated half-word circumscribes the bathetic sweep of an entire generation of mediocre guitar poets, it’s also an epithet of sorts, conjuring images of pussy-whipped young men spilling buckets of tears all over your hi-fi. So no wonder 31-year-old Sean “Slug” Daley, the most openhearted MC in history and one half of the Minneapolis-based duo Atmosphere, bristles at being pegged the world’s first emo-rapper: He’s so openly lovelorn, he named a record (2001’s excellent Lucy Ford) after the girl who apparently inspired his vivid narratives about binge drinking, aimless drives, and uninspired fucking. Having recently lost the love of my life to another man (as well as my own mistakes), I’m acutely aware of the ugly self-flagellation and drastic self-improvement that surge through your veins in the wake of losing Her, and Slug seems suspicious of those same things. So even if he takes off from the kind of overwhelming romantic depravation that fuels Chris Carraba, Slug’s rhymes are less about bloodletting than about realizing a fully formed personality, ugly details not omitted.
Anthony “Ant” Davis, Slug’s longtime producer, certainly helps. His dusty grooves are hooky and r&b-informed, and even when they back up Slug’s most maniacally depressed rhymes, they never feel heavy-handed. Seven’s Travels piles on Ant’s widest array of sounds yet—Run-D.M.C. samples, all sorts of squiggly effects, plenty of understated funk loops. Yet there’s an emotional coherence here—a spare, hard-won sobriety that gels perfectly with Slug’s vivid rhymes about having a thing for self-hating women and ditching a gun inside a mailbox and how Minnesota is great for what it doesn’t have.
Listen closely to Slug’s self-deprecating insights and you realize that, besides how shitty love can make you feel, his other big theme is the importance and even glory of struggle, both as an MC and as a human being. One reason his lyrics rarely reek of rote bitching is that he not only realizes hard work and hard times are essential conditions of his life, but he also makes that stuff sing. It’s no surprise that his two most anthemic songs—”Party for the Fight to Write” and “Modern Man’s Hustle”—are all about underdog tenacity. On Seven’s Travels, especially, Slug avoids getting preachy or philosophic about his struggles to pay the rent or to lay off the sauce, though he does vague out every now and then. It’s mildly annoying that busted love songs like the drunken hookup narrative “Shoes” always come back to his neuroses, as do industry-baiting tracks like “Trying to Build a Balance”: “Now all my friends are famous/It’s either one thing or another/They all don’t know what my name is/Probably know both of my brothers.” Still, his first person is less present and somehow more personal here, and he lays out his demons so clearly and unpretentiously that he reinforces the believability of his most telling lyric from Lucy Ford‘s “Free or Dead”: “My fans know me better than my friends do.”
Of course, Slug probably gets laid more than he lets on. And as is decidedly not the case with most emo-punk, you can get off on Atmosphere’s records even if you don’t identify with the lyricist—the music is always full of life, and Slug’s white-boy flow is brassy, deft, and one-of-a-kind. Yet he’s one of the few undie rappers whose bond with his admirers isn’t based on some sense of educated superiority. Slug doesn’t offer much advice on Seven’s Travels; he’s so absorbed in his own problems that he doesn’t have time for the rest of the world’s. But I’ll take his life-affirming rants over some twentysomething’s colorless moaning any day. My Lucy Ford is an Italian girl named Chiara, and as I try to figure out how to shut the fuck up about her, it’s kind of comforting to know Sean Daley exists.
Atmosphere play S.O.B.’s Nov. 11 and 12.