“In the days of kings and queens I was a jester. Treat me like a god or they treat me like leper. You see me move back and forth between posts. I’m trying to find a balance I’m trying to build a balance.”
It comes blazing through the speakers on “Trying to Find a Balance”, the first proper track on Slug’s loudest and latest, the much-discussed Seven’s Travels, the first Rhymesayers album released (for worldwide distro purposes) on Epitaph; it’s a thesis statement spat like a ‘fuck you’ between clenched teeth, and the tone speaks of a mic being strangled like the last best grip on reality. There are plenty of things to unpack just in that chorus, so we’ll just start there and let it take us through the story of this album, from emo-rappers to thug passion, labels and reps to women and tour vans, and anything that might show up in between.
In the days of kings and queens:
Slug is over 30. Atmosphere is four proper albums deep, with innumerable guest appearances and side projects since 1997, not to mention the Headshots tapes dating further back. God Loves Ugly was the last outing prior to this one, a sprawling attempt at painting the mirror exactly as it stared back at Sean Daley morning after morning. Many were disappointed with GLU as a follow-up to the Lucy Ford EPs, hoping for more of the conceptual brilliance of songs like “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands”, or “Nothing but Sunshine”. But the album was doing something different – it was entrenched deep in the first person, and as such it oscillated like a manic depressive between poles of painful introspection and the poor man’s pimp steez that defined much of Slug’s early work, particularly Overcast!.
Treat me like a god:
Atmosphere is easily the best-selling act in the independent rap scene. GLU was soundscanned at 50k-plus last I checked, and I’m sure that number has grown. Their tours sell out consistently, the Rhymesayers imprint is able to put out releases by numerous up-and-comers like Bro Ali and Eyedea, and Slug is discussed like he was Uptown Jesus on message boards and in magazines. It’s that perspective, that of a man on a quest for importance, that defines at least half of the performed self on display here.
Treat me like a leper:
His fans are too emo. His music is too emo. His delivery never changes. His shows are packed with teeny suburbanites new to rap. He hasn’t released anything worthwhile since the Overcast! EP. Ant’s beats suck: too repetitive, too similar, and his snare is too damn loud. He’s always fucking complaining. Etc. “Reflections”, too: “The first time she met the devil was at first avenue / Went backstage with him into the dressing room / Sexy ego-trip, taller than expected / About six foot three, seemed to thrive on his misery. / Critical, observant, big words, sweaty hair sunken eyes and thick nerves. / She said ‘I’ll make him smile for the simple fact that he needs it, I’ll make him smile just so I can kill it and eat it’.” Some might recognize the quote as a reprisal or reversal of lines from the God Loves Ugly lead single “Modern Man’s Hustle”. In fact, much of the album deals with themes similar to the previous album; though Lucy is not featured so prominently, Slug’s relationships with women remain a central concern (“Shoes”, among others), as does his near-contradictory blend of ego and self-effacement (almost every track). What’s that mean? I suppose that this isn’t the album a lot of people were probably hoping for. But it’s never the album people were hoping for. I have a feeling though that down the line when people look back at Sluggo’s body of work, Seven’s Travels and God Loves Ugly will be grouped closely together for more than just chronological reasons.
You see me move…
This is a tour album. It isn’t live, and it wasn’t recorded on the road, but it’s a tour album. It documents Slug’s trips from “denvemolorado” to “los angeles,” but “always coming back home to you,” (Minneapolis, Jake, Fifth Element, all of it). The tracks and interludes echo of homesickness, of too many backstages and vans, not enough real people and too many fans, etc. etc. etc. But some tours are worse than others: the album is dedicated to Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler, the young (16 yrs) woman that was sexually assaulted and killed by a (previous sex offender) theater employee at an Atmosphere show after she tried to get back stage. How depressed do you want to get? From “Gotta Lotta Walls”: “If he had a glass pipe he would smash it and use it to slash his wrists… / Someone already beat him to it… / He would fingerpaint you a picture in his blood, dramatic and morbid.” How many walls can you put up in your mind? How many will mean anything? From the inside cover: “When i found out, i broke down bad. / confused. / is it selfish of me to grieve? / crying for someone i don’t know. / confused.” Reminds me of Neil Young somehow, shock at hearing the news of Cobain’s note – one doesn’t sign up for the gig of musician in hopes of playing a role in someone’s death. Movement though, movement.
California. New York. Alive. Dead. Home. The road. Boogie Down Productions. Dashboard Confessional. Family. Friends. Fans. Journalists. Musicians. Artists. Words. Words. Rhymesayers. Labels. Jacob Miles. Lucy. Slug. Sean.
To be a touring musician is to live a performed life, to pack into the van along with your bags an entire persona, one that you’ll have to wear most nights up on stage – to be, at the least, a dual personality. And it can be a burden. Again from the inside cover: “i’m having a hard time faking this smile.”
Trying to find a balance:
What comprises the ratio here? The right proportion of keeping it real to keeping it really real, perhaps. Or maybe the right blend of noise and music. Speech and silence. Love and hate. What’s a middle ground? Or at least, where is it? “Atmosphere finally made a good record. / Yeah right, that shit almost sounds convincing.” It depends on whom you ask, I suppose; it’s a better album than the last was, that much is sure. Awake, it’s in-motion, kinetic. Movement. Here and there. Between the posts, the poles, emotions, faces, all of that. When we spoke a few weeks back, Slug referred to Seven’s Travels as a “happy album”. I don’t know that I can agree. It doesn’t make me happy. Is it the right balance, enough of this, enough of that? I don’t know. I don’t think that sort of balance exists.
Rhymesayers just got out of a year of talks with various major labels, before signing for distribution with Epitaph. Look for an investigative Dusted report on that experience in the coming weeks.
By Daniel Thomas-Glass