Emo-Rap Discovers the Mixtape
The triumphant return of the soul-patch
It's sort of weird that the emo-rap underground has taken so long to adapt the mixtape. For the most part, the Def Jux types of the world choose to disseminate their throwaway songs on tour-only CDs or limited-edition collectible colored-vinyl EPs or whatever, but I'd be a whole lot more interested to see what might happen if rappers from that whole extended scene tried their hand at straight-up mixtapes: slimline CD cases with photocopies inlay cards, unbelievably annoying drops, songs where the DJ runs back the beginning of the track five times, the whole thing. And I'd be way more curious to hear Aesop Rock over Rich Boy beats than over, say, Aesop Rock beats. Maybe that'll never happen, but we're at least one step closer now. Last week , Atmosphere, for a while my favorite indie-rap group, released Strictly Leakage, a free downloadable mixtape. As much as I might like to hear Slug rapping over "Roc Boys" and "Dey Know," this isn't that, but it's a step toward it. Slug does rap over a few older tracks from the likes of Kool G Rap and Ice Cube, and the new beats, all from longtime producer Ant, are organic and sample-based enough to fit in nicely with the older beats. Strictly Leakage starts with the regal, triumphant horn riff that Marley Marl sampled for Big Daddy Kane's "Young, Gifted and Black," and I got an immediate rush the first time I heard it, partly because I love that beat and possibly because Jay-Z started The S. Carter Collection with the exact same track a few years ago.
Of course, Slug has never been anywhere near Jay-Z or Kane as a rapper, and he's been steadily deteriorating for the past few years. He's at his best when he's agonizing over failing relationships or contemplating quiet solitary moments, two things he never does here. And churlish as it may be to complain about an album's worth of free new music, Slug drops plenty of clunkers here. When he posted the mixtape, he wrote that Atmosphere had conceptualized Strictly Leakage as their party-rap album, and party-rap isn't exactly his strong suit. When Slug tries to do straight-up battle-rap these days, it can feel awkwardly mannered and forced: "It's termination day for these halfwits / Flippin' them lips from the cradle to the casket." "Full Moon" is a song about how great Atmosphere's live shows are, and on it Slug actually uses the term "raise the roof." He also does the thing where he bitches rotely about gangsta rap and materialism, a tired lament that I sort of can't believe the indie-rap world is still working. And on the Rhymesayers posse cut "Crewed Up," a couple of the guest-rappers drop n-bombs, and he actually bleeps them, which is just weird.
But I'm still happy about Strictly Leakage, mostly because of how it sounds. Slug always struck me as being one of the few indie-rap mainstays who actually might have a decent shot at mainstream stardom if he ever bothered to take it. He raps on beat, his lyrics are concrete and unpretentious, and he evinces a sort of bullying charisma that keeps his songs likable even when he's saying stupid stuff. That charisma is still there, along with a warm empathy that makes him tough to hate. Before lashing out at thug-rap on "Little Math You," he defends a suburban kid who rebels through rap: "Go ahead and make some ruckus for the hell of it / And yell it on the streets of that monotonous development." It's one thing to define yourself and your audience through negation, by disapproving of music that has nothing to do with you; it's another to stick up for even the most embarrassing segments of your audience. And Strictly Leakage is full of little concept-songs that might only half-work but which end up endearing anyway. There aren't a whole lot of quotable punchlines on "Domestic Dog," the song about picking up girls at the supermarket, but the idea is disarming enough to work, as are the lines about using his father's old records to teach himself to scratch on "Road to Riches." And even when he's talking self-important bullshit, the beats move. Ant only ever works for rappers under the Rhymesayers umbrella, but his tracks here would've worked perfectly well on, say, the last Freeway album. His tracks are warm and breezy, and they work effortlessly with Slug's husky bark. Ant was the reason that the last Atmosphere album, You Can't Believe How Much Fun We're Having, wasn't a total drag, and if Slug continues his slide, he'll be saving grace of the next Atmosphere album, too.
It's instructive to compare Strictly Leakage to another new mixtape, Joe Budden's Mood Muzik 3. In almost every way, Budden is a better rapper than Slug: more fluidly eloquent with a wider frame of reference, a more candid emotional urgency, and a better sense of verbal economy. Slug and Budden both know how to tell a story, and both can be a bit rhythmically lead-footed, but Budden wins on every other front. Still, I'm finding Strictly Leakage to be a whole lot more compulsively listenable than Mood Muzik 3. All the beats on Budden's tape are new, and most of them are total mixtape fare, flat and hookless. And the mastering on Mood Muzik 3 is annoyingly muddy and distorted. It's also about twice the length of Strictly Leakage. I'm not saying this stuff to bury Mood Muzik 3; it's a powerful piece of work, and when it sees actual commercial release next month, Budden will have presumably dealt with its sound-quality issues. But it's also a mixtape made not made to be listenable. Atmosphere makes most of its money as a touring act, and these days it seems to be adapting the Fugazi model to releasing music: the albums are primarily just previews to the live show. But even their most flawed music is still made with actual listeners in mind. That's a good thing.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on Atmosphere's Seven's Travels
Voice review: Michaelangelo Matos on Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly