Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Atmosphere - God Loves Ugly
God Loves Ugly
od Loves Ugly feels like it was thrown together as much to spite life as to glorify squeezing the most out of it. But, even though Atmosphere’s only consciously overarching concept was probably something like, ‘let’s record enough stuff for a full-length,’ they ended up with a well-rounded hip hop record that combines a few self-effacing ingredients to somehow roll out underground gold.
Ant’s production is simple, crisp, and consistent. Almost every track has just one sample or piano loop accompanied by a tight but flexible beat with some selectively swung hi-hat and snare. Slug’s effectsed-less vocals feel like they’re all done in one take. He’s emphatic and emotional but, even when he’s bitter—which is often—he always sounds like he enjoys calling it out.
Slug is super sensitive but he’s confident enough to rap about it with stretch-rhymes (“fuck you Lucy for leaving me / fuck you Lucy for not needing me”) or sometimes not-rhymes for extra emphasis (“I got an idea / you should get a tattoo that says warning / that’s all, just warning”). But he also has a knack for absurdist one-liners, like “keep your days out my week.” And, even though he stays on-point about lady-problems, blue-collar-drama, and remaining off the majors, Slug comes with enough convincing attitude that it doesn’t get boring. The album’s only guest, I Self Devine on “Flesh”, is also awesome and an entirely different breed of rapper. His flow (much closer to the swagger-rap ethos you’re used to) provides a nice foil and a reminder that Slug’s style is unique.
Choruses are surprisingly catchy, considering that they’re mostly just rapped with no change in instrumentation. (The persistent refrain in “Vampires” is as hauntingly infectious as its bed-rock.) But despite the indomitable production and sincere lyrics, it’s Slug’s carefree delivery and self-effacing sarcasm that characterizes the record. All ambition is proudly sardonic: “Mom, I promise, I’m gonna be large / someday I’m gonna stop trying to borrow your car!” (Another more subtly indicative moment comes when Slug suggests he should be hired by another rapper to “write your shit”, not because it would be any better, but because then the blame would be on Slug when listeners “don’t like your shit”.)
Somehow, even when he seems to innocently slipup, by rhyming “talent” and “balance” in two separate songs—“you could never learn how to ride a bike without balance / so what’s the point of trying to grab a mic without talent?” in “Blamegame” and “you got no balance, combined with no talent / disgraceful, you can catch a face full of phallice,” in “The Bass and the Movement”—each is distinct in content and lyrical-context—if not in tone—and ultimately the gaffe adds to the underground aesthetic. You get the idea that Slug just forgot he already said that—which makes the whole thing cooler and even more charmingly carefree, emphasizing the I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness and inviting you to play-along by trying to catch the endearing indie missteps that might have been ironed out on a major.This is another clue that there’s no grand vision on God Loves Ugly. It’s too intimately, myopically, and emotionally, momentary for that. And this is exactly why it’s such a damn good album: it feels honest.
But…although God Loves Ugly feels like it was made one-piece-at-a-time, there is a coherent thesis that’s summed up in the album’s abstract, “Onemosphere”: “My life is as trite as your favorite rap record / and I’m possessed with that insight that enables me to laugh better.” This isn’t glamorous mainstream rap, it’s a decidedly underground patchwork of self-loathing confronted with swagger and revelry rather than wallowing. (This is far from a concept album but there is at least a consistent undercurrent.)
So who’s Ugly? Is it sad-eyed Slug being consoled by telling himself that someone still loves him? Or is he mocking the successful mainstream artists who apparently have God on their side by reminding them that this means they’re Ugly? To me it reads as something like, ‘if I’m going to live in a world dominated by your rules, I’m going to remind you that one of them is to pity those you pick on, so instead of buying into your paradigm of success, I’m going to make the most of my underdog immunity to run my mouth and still have the last laugh and never answer to anyone.’ I see it as Slug’s stubborn argument that the superficially mediocre has as much gratifying depth as success. (This attitude is summed up in the title track: “I wear my scars like the rings of a pimp / I live life like the captain of a sinking ship”.) Slug’s solution is eternally simple: “Lovelife”.
God Loves Ugly is hip hop for those self-loathing subversives submerged somewhere in an anonymous suburb of Middle America. Atmosphere makes it clear they’re from Minneapolis—rap clichés (like localism and machismo on the mic, if nowhere else) are honored on God Loves Ugly—but they’re accessible to a particular huge audience that’s been historically attracted to hip hop, despite being unable to intimately identify with it: boring white suburban males. Finally we—boring white suburban males—could find ourselves in rap without artificially buying into an escape-experience that was loudly not our own.
It’s not that race itself matters. (Slug is only half white.) But perception of it—both your own and others’—completely dictates the content that’s available for you. (Slug’s is closer to Minus the Bear than Clipse—both top albums of 2002 candidates.) So, while Slug sounds nothing like Eminem—who had two of the top 10 selling albums of 2002, both also candidates—they share a common non-coastal-city ethos and focus on the same basic theme: their place in relation to a girl and a world where they don’t fit. And this is the petty plight of the white hip hop fan: we feel ostracized from rap culture but we know we have nothing of substance to complain about (other than ourselves.)
And, without widening their scope and confronting the aftermath of a national tragedy, “white” rappers really only had one trivial thing that was acceptable for them to complain about: rejection. That’s not quite to say that white hip-hop heads can claim the experience of being othered. But sometimes getting denied by your love-interest can strengthen your identity by freeing you from hers. That’s exactly the case on God Loves Ugly. Atmosphere is much better off mixing it up on the playing field than trying to pursue Common’s long-lost dream girl.
Highlights: “Fuck You Lucy”; “GodLovesUgly”; “Lovelife”; “Shrapnel”