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The Balding and the Beautiful

So I'm on the phone with Sean Daley — better-known as the rapper Slug — who alongside his producer/beat-making partner, Anthony "Ant" Davis, forms Minnesota's long-running hip-hop duo Atmosphere. For kicks, I'm reading Slug some reviews of Atmosphere's latest album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, to gauge his reactions. One is from veteran music scribe Robert Christgau, who wrote of the disc, "The lost lives and loves [Slug] sketches are so painfully familiar they feel like truth. And Ant's homey beats enhance the illusion."

"Robert Christgau said that?! Wooow," Slug gushes. "That quote is nicer than anything that I could say about my own record without feeling like a pretentious dick. He's said nice things about me in the past, but I thought he gave up on us once we kinda jumped the shark with [2003] Seven's Travels."

"You really think you jumped the shark with Seven's Travels?" I ask.

"Fuck yeah," the 36-year-old rapper replies without hesitation. "But that's great, because now I always get to go reinvent. The next record gets to be even more different. I think doin' that with Seven's Travels accidentally was the best thing that coulda happened to me in my career. The second-best thing that coulda happened to me was when I got alopecia and I lost all my fuckin' hair."

Slug came down with the condition in 2005, but you have to go back a few more years to understand why it was such a life- and career-changing event. Emerging from the Minneapolis underground scene in the mid-'90s, Atmosphere turned heads and built its dedicated following not only on the strength and cleverness of Slug's rhymes. The rapper's willingness to bare his soul for the world to see made him an avatar of the burgeoning emo-rap scene. Self-critical and introspective to the hilt — "If I spent any more time inside my head/I'd probably need some leather straps attached to my bed," he rapped early on — Slug delivered heavyweight hyper-realistic odes to his daily struggles, his troubles with the bottle, and, especially, girls: Girls he fucked, girls he wanted to fuck, girls he fucked over, and girls who fucked him over.

Slug says now that many of those songs, though they possessed elements of reality, were embellished for the sake of making a point. But somewhere in the writing process, he admits, the line between Slug and Sean Daley became blurred. While Atmosphere's music grew more ambitious and accessible, Seven's Travels represented a big leap from Atmosphere's earlier work in terms of its conceptual nature and its more polished sonics, and Daley began living up to his alter ego Slug, becoming infamous for his hard-partying ways and groupie exploits.

And then, male pattern baldness killed his ego and saved his life.

"That was probably the coolest thing that could have happened, because I think that prior to that happening, I was fallin' for it — I was kind of a caricature of myself," Slug says. "I was drinking more than any human should; I was relying too much on the fact that fuckin' indie-rock chicks and indie-rap chicks thought I was cute. I was playing it up too fucking hard, and not only in my life but in the records, man. It was coming through the writing, and when I look back on that time, I'm kind of disgusted with how I was living, and I kinda feel bad about some of the things that I allowed to slip past the edit as far as what I said on my records."

Further explaining that the alopecia came on just ten days before he was scheduled to go out on tour in support of Atmosphere's last album, 2005's You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, Slug recalls, "I was like, 'I feel gross, I look not, like, normal.' I had patches of hair about the size of a quarter, about 50 of them all around my head. It looked like I had some kind of disease. And it was like, 'You know what, man? I'm gonna go out here and I'm just gonna have some fuckin' fun with this fuckin' music.' I stopped drinking cold fuckin' turkey because I was worried that drinking had something to do with me even getting the condition to begin with. I stopped fuckin' chasing ass, and I just focused totally on performance, and I had such a good time with it that, once life came back to normal and the hair came back, I just stayed away from the vanity. I just was like, I'm not gonna play up this indie-rap sex-symbol bullshit anymore."

So Slug turned his gaze outward, telling others' stories for When Life Gives You Lemons — poignant, fictionalized narratives of down-and-out and working-class lives — and Christgau's assessment of the truths touched within these stories is spot-on. In "Dreamer," a single mother with a heart condition struggles with a deadbeat baby daddy, sexual harassment at her day job, and night classes but refuses to give up hope for a brighter life. "The Waitress," meanwhile, finds Slug voicing the role of a homeless man who inspires both disgust and compassion in a waitress at a local café: "In front of everyone, she calls me bum/But she notices my absence on them afternoons I don't come... I wonder when she'll realize that she's the only reason I visit/The only woman in my world that acknowledges my existence." Underneath it all, Ant provides a warm, organic tapestry of sound — forgoing the usual soul/funk samples for live instruments (flutes, horns, piano, midnight guitar) on arrangements that give individual grooves room to breathe rather than overcrowding them.

Not every review has been glowing, and not every fan is happy. Slug's confronted with this constantly, whether it's a MySpace message telling him his new stuff sucks or kids coming up to him when he's working the merch table before gigs — as he did on Atmosphere's recent European tour — to say, "I hope you play some old shit tonight, because I'm not really feelin' the new one."

"It's funny," Slug notes, "because when kids complain like, 'Man, I want those angry songs that you used to make that I could relate to about why I hate my girlfriend...' you know what, man? If you keep listening to those fucking songs, you're gonna continue having girlfriends to hate. And if I keep reading these fucking Bukowski books, I'm gonna keep being a piece of shit.

"Anyway," he concludes, "I kinda feel like it's my job to challenge people who like us... because otherwise I'm not really respecting the audience; I'm just a caterer. And I would think catering to you is more a sellout move than challenging you."