By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
On one hand, it shouldn't be surprising that rapper Slug is insecure, considering he's got one song called "They're All Gonna Laugh @ You" and another that tells the fantastical story of a woman who would rather have sex with her own tattoos than with him.
Still, as one half of Minneapolis duo Atmosphere and a crucial player in the indie-rap scene since — well, since indie rap started, you'd think he'd be comfortable with himself.
Not so much. Slug (aka Sean Daley) confesses that self-doubt informed not just Atmosphere's latest album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, but also the children's story that comes along with it (it's actually for adults, in a McSweeney's vein).
"A lot of my peers and contemporaries for years now have been giving me shit, directly or indirectly, about how they feel I dumb my music down," Slug points out. "Now, rather than consider that the only reason they say that is because I outsell them now, I actually get nervous about it. So I thought, as a joke, I would go all the way and write a children's book. It doesn't get any more simplistic than that."
The book is a companion to the record, substituting fanciful metaphors (say, a magical goat) for the album's hardscrabble characters (say, a working-class mother of two).
But forget about the magical goat for a second. The fact that Slug isn't rapping about his own life is the real news flash. For Gold, he penned imagined stories about strangers he observed while sitting at a bus stop near his new house in South Minneapolis.
"I needed to learn how to teach myself some new tricks," he says. "I looked back at my writing, and it reminded me of eighth-grade creative-writing class. I was offering conflict, but I wasn't offering any resolution. It's like I didn't make it to ninth grade. So one of the things I wanted to do was to start including resolution."
And so Slug and his Atmosphere cohort and producer, Ant (aka Anthony Davis), overhauled the group's sound and feel on Gold, abandoning samples in favor of recording actual instruments. And lyrically, Slug stitched together a series of self-encapsulated fictional tales. For these reasons, Gold feels less like the boilerplate, sample-driven indie-rap albums Atmosphere threatened to retire on and more like a groundbreaking work. But you can rest assured that Slug, ever the self-critic, heads off doubters at the pass.
"I don't think this record is the epitome of what can be done in [this] style, but I definitely think it's a step in the direction for us to see how far we can go with it," he says, adding a bit of the emo vulnerability that makes him so easy to relate to. "I see it still as a continuation of the baby steps that we take, trying to make an album that's going to make us happy forever."