NEW YORK ó Thereís an ad hoc queue of women waiting to greet Slug at the bar. Itís about 10 p.m., and heís slouched up against the wall in the Knitting Factory, an unimpressed look on his face, casually downing a Heineken. The last time he was here, in July 2001, he almost caused a stampede by jumping into the crowd after his set and slowly working his way to the doors, admirers tugging on him all the way. The scene before this show is a bit more sedate, but Slugís still a magnet. Born Sean Daley 29 years ago, he possesses a kind of sinister charm. Heís unfailingly polite to women, even as he remains distant. As a result, heís the object of much desire.
Itís odd, then, that on his recordings, heís almost never the one being pursued. An indie-rap icon, Slug is the frontman and sole rapper in Atmosphere (producer Ant completes the line-up), a group with a rabid following. Slugís trademark songs ó "The Abusing of the Rib," "The Woman with the Tattooed Hands" ó are chronicles of awkward, unrequited desire. And much of the rest of his úuvre centers on bad relationships (or, if you believe what Daley says, one bad relationship). The last Atmosphere album, The Lucy Ford EPs (Rhymesayers), may well have been hip-hopís first true therapy session on wax: grim, vituperative, incisive, cathartic.
Whereas Lucy Ford was Slugís song cycle about failed romance, the new Atmosphere album, God Loves Ugly (Rhymesayers/Fat Beats), could legitimately be called Slugís battle record. There are moments when he eschews lost love for a more aggressive stance. "One of a Kind" uses words as weapons. On "The Bass and the Movement," he jabs, "Give the kid a nipple ícause he sucks."
But Slugís never very far from tugging on his own heartstrings. On "Give Me," he jokes that heís "been making it cool to rap about love again." Hip-hop could certainly use a little bit of that these days, but Slugís blend of skill, wit, charm, and attitude (not to mention good looks) promises to take him far away from this often parochial genre. He might blow up. He might go pop. (In its first week of release, God Loves Ugly scanned more than 9000 units, landing the little indie rapper square in the middle of the Billboard album charts, at #139, and at the top of the Heatseeker chart to boot.)
Early last year, I asked Slug about that possibility. "I think it could happen," he admits, though he shits on major labels in more than one song and seems to make a habit of undermining any dealings he might have with potential suitors. "Itís why I crack jokes about being the VH1 rapper. I think a lot of the stuff I do is still safe and innocent enough to not really offend anybody but still be different. It could be pop. Itís just a matter of timing. I know that. I know verse/chorus/verse, how to build a bridge, word association. Iíve studied this shit. Itís just timing. I want to be the first rapper on VH1 with a good song. Weíre going to make rap music for 28-year-old white women."
On "Hair," sheís more like 21. "Iím in my late 20s, little girl/Donít flirt with me," he warns. "I got the capabilities to program your circuitry." By the end, though, heís given in to her advances and finds himself being driven back to her house ó he wonít bring groupies to his place ó only to get blindsided by a truck and die. The moral: love hurts. As for commitment, itís an unpaved, mine-infested road of disasters. "Fuck You Lucy" revisits the title paramour from his last album, whom heís still trying desperately to kiss off. "Fuck you, Lucy, for divining my existence," he snarls. "Most of this garbage I write/That all these people seem to like/Is about you, and how I let you infect my life."
Itís probable that a good portion of the units Slug moved in the first week of God Loves Uglyís sales were sold to women ó girls just like those angling for a few minutes of his time at the Knitting Factory bar. One asks for an autograph. One tells him how much she and her friends love him. One particularly attractive one sidles up next to him, gives him a languorous eye, and turns to order a drink. Slug lets out an almost imperceptible sigh, fishing into his pocket for a drink ticket. Tapping her on the shoulder, he musters his best tortured-artist look. "Let me get this one," he says. She smiles.