Everything you might need to know about the Atlanta rapper Sugar Tongue Slim, for purposes including but not limited to supplying some context in the first paragraph of a record review, can be found on the fourth track of The Illustrious, “The Interview,” a skillful split-personality get-to-know-you sesh. There’s a hometown callout and various eloquent boasts about his eloquence, but also a flyover survey of his background as a poet, his brief stint as a small-time pimp, even a brisk listing of the rappers he admires or respects. It’s the sort of thing you might once have spent an entire album learning, detail by detail, but Slim understands you’re probably busy. So, rather than let your attention taper off, ask away. Does he regret dabbling in prostitution? Not really. Did he sell crack, too? Nope. Why does he yell “GOLD!” at the beginning of every track? It’s an acronym. Is he worried about Internet piracy? It’s complicated.
STS is an obviously gifted rapper with some beautifully smooth beats behind him and a great deal of enticing swagger in front — roughly, the impertinence and dexterity of Big L and the breezy charm of Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z — but throughout The Illustrious the adjective that registers most is user-friendly. It goes well beyond the FAQ in “The Interview”; he just seems so persistently aware that we’re paying attention to him — as a dude, as a self-styled playboy, as a romantic prospect, above all as a rapper — that the awareness itself starts to blend in with the swagger. “I had to grab the mic so she would know who I am”; “some people think I’m shallow, baby, I don’t care”; “motherfuck what he say, I’m your favorite cliché.” (Those are all refrains.)
Which burdens him more than it burdens the album itself, but that preoccupation with what we’re going to make of him is, besides his talent, the thing about The Illustrious that feels the most authentic; even as Slim wows you repeatedly, you sort of wonder what he isn’t even bothering to try. From the album’s best moments (“STSIsGold”) to its least inspired (“Covered in GOLD,” “Hello Sunshine”), he’s never anything less than perfectly politic. He never sold crack. He uses words like escrow. He even boasts, at one point, about “fucking bitches with chivalry.” STS just might be the rapper that anyone who has preconceived problems with rap can get behind, and The Illustrious is a special album, one of 2011’s sleeper best. It just feels like it could have happened a little more on his own terms.