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Atmosphere, ‘You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having’ (Rhymesayers)

Calling something “emo” is usually just a way of talking about guys who ain’t too proud to beg or, y’know, cry. But there’s a lot of ambivalence out there fronting as sensitivity. Scratch that velveteen surface and you might find a megalomaniac. That’s not the case with Atmosphere’s Slug — except when it is. Anointed a phenom after getting cleverly candid on 1997’s Overcast and wickedly enshrining an ex on 2001’s Lucy Ford EPs, the charismatic indie rapper refused major-label cheddar, frustrating fans who longed to hear his rhymes over radio-size tracks. But it’s hard to imagine him going that route — 2003’s Seven’s Travels showed a deep love for his unflashy hometown of Minneapolis. Loyalty reigns, and Slug continues to work with local producer Ant, who delivers more dusted, crate-dug soul samples on You Can’t Imagine, this time leaning toward gospel.

Drunk on tent-revival truth serum, Slug slams and confesses with typical verve. His critique of right-wing, drug-warrior prescription junkies is right on. And the powerful “That Night” finds him feeling angrily helpless about being unable to prevent the rape and murder of a female fan outside a show. His cracks on hip-hop rivals and the music industry (“Whoever put your record out musta needed write-offs”) can be funny, but it’s romantic woes that really salt Slug. “Angelface” is a smart rumination on an “ex-lover-and-a-best-friend/best-lover-and-an-ex-friend,” in which he laments that he had to “Tie a knot in the stomach / Just to help me seal up.” As he raps on “Say Hey There,” when it comes to love, “We don’t play fair.”

At times, it seems like mid-level fame yields too many tour-based gripes for Slug. He tries to compensate by making van life a metaphor for emotional detachment, but his complaints about groupies and relentless partying begin to sound like self-pity. Even though the final track, “Little Man,” brings off a father-son-son triptych that gives “Cat’s in the Cradle” a run for its money, the inward spiral feels kind of airless. A guy this talented deserves to achieve his goal to “build a home outta syllables.” But it’s tough to imagine anyone else living there.

See Also: Eyedea & Abilities, E&A (Rhymesayers/Epitaph, 2004)