The atmosphere of Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly is dark. Slug, the Minneapolis hip-hop group's lone MC, is an amalgam of angst, bitterness and stubborn creativity. He wants you to know that he's been screwed over by life. Poor, lonely and always struggling with more internal demons that you'd care to count, Slug portrays himself as a lone rebel of some kind, an artist pushing on despite the fact that no one cares about him.
Though here and there Slug plays the traditional hip-hop boasting game, telling us why he is the greatest ever, he spends most of his time detailing his inner turmoil. He "wear(s) the pain like a stain", wears his "scars like the rings on a pimp". Song after song tell of struggles with money, battles to keep the mental perspective needed to not just end it all and fights with women, who seem to be eternally neglecting him. On "Hair", the one song where Slug tells a story of successfully hooking up with a girl, he feels the need to send the story to a grim conclusion, where both Slug and his lady friend die in a car accident before they ever really get together.
If God Loves Ugly is long enough and Slug's lyrics are repetitive enough to make you wonder "what's this guy's deal?", the songs also have a consistency of mood that help make the album feel like one long meditation on a theme, an introspective thought-piece on the struggles of life. It's when Slug steps away from these themes that he shows his weakest side. The songs that step into typical bragging and boasting are the album's worst, with lyrics that are at best clichéd and at worst, truly lame. Take this for example: "You can either call my bluff or turn the volume up / And make noise for the women that swallow stuff / Put your hands up if you feel the music / Cause all that matters is the bass and the movement."
The real pulse behind Slug's rhymes, the element that gives God Loves Ugly its real heart, is the music, courtesy of the group's other member, Ant. Sparse and melancholy, the beats echo the sound of classic funk and soul grooves to great effect. Bass and drums partner up to add haunting moods that complement the lyrics. There's also pleasant forays into other genres and styles, like the reggae sounds that enter the album during its final tracks.
God Loves Ugly might not be the freshest or most innovative hip-hop album you'll hear, but it does have an edge. It's also more complicated than it seems on the surface. Just when Slug starts to focus so much on his "dark side" that it seems like just another pose, he'll put forth a feeling that strikes a genuine chord, as when he reveals that all he really wants in life is "a little more security, a little more safety, a lot less uncertainty" or when he urges listeners to love life despite the bleak vision he has put forth. These sentiments reveal Slug as more thoughtful than he sometimes seems. It's these moments that show how art can get at the complexities and contradictions of what it means to be alive.