Sean Daley really likes to make babies.
More commonly known as Slug from the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere, he is the father of three sons, the eldest born before grunge even died. Probe the 20-year catalogue of albums and side projects put forth by Daley and DJ/producer Ant (Anthony Davis) — a career that turned them into the least underground of underground rap acts — and you’ll find it fecund with breeding metaphors.
“We can thumb-wrestle, or we can make a daughter … I thought it was supposed to get easier when you worked harder,” Slug memorably intoned on the duo’s breakthrough 2002 record, God Loves Ugly, in one of countless she-done-me-wrong songs from his early repertoire. Starting about three albums ago, his more sober (in every way) and introspective story-raps incited disses from old-school fans who weren’t pleased that their hero was aging gracefully, expressing near-constant gratitude for his new life as the happily married father of two young boys.
And that’s a bit unfair. Because on Atmosphere’s latest effort, Fishing Blues, the 44-year-old lyricist still wants to knock us all up. Over Ant’s festive, piano-laced loops — injections of retro R&B as sparkly as any of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes — he’s just more thoughtful about it. In “When the Lights Go Out,” featuring Kool Keith and MF Doom, Slug rhymes, “And when there ain’t nothing more to grab / I might give something back to the floor of this cab / I might tag my name on the door of your building / Might even make a couple of your children.” Meanwhile, the “she” he addresses in “No Biggie” could be the diehard fanbase that never wanted him to grow up — and grow out of his edgier early persona: “I’m trying to cherish life / You’re trying to steer on ice / I wanna put my DNA in your American pie / There’s no life after death / I’m not ready to die.”
Reliably, Slug was emoting on all cylinders this week at The Orange Peel. “Come on, Asheville, let’s go upstairs,” the rapper entreated the near-capacity crowd, tweaking a line from his declaration “Happymess,” a fearlessly passionate love song he wrote last decade for his current wife. “Get me pregnant,” he taunted in an earthy, seductive voice, running his hand over the middle-aged man-bump apparent under his black T-shirt, to the crowd’s obvious delight. “Go ahead … I’m not scared.”
The nearly four-hour show, with DJ Plain Ole Bill scratching next to Ant, was a vibrant bravura for Atmosphere’s Rhymesayers Entertainment label, home to Aesop Rock’s critically acclaimed latest release (The Impossible Kid) and the proving ground of the beloved late rapper Eyedea. Rhymesayers’ youngest rising star, deM atlaS, set the evening’s tone of tough love, segueing into a set by lyricist/activist Brother Ali, whose air of controlled dignity makes a fine complement to Slug’s bluster. All three came together for a freestyle encore, with Wicked Weed garnering a shout out, among other Asheville hot spots.
In between rhyming, Slug expressed affection for the town’s craft beer, calling for a pint on stage and quipping, after the first gulp, “That tastes like breakfast.” After bumping his mantra “Put your hands in the air like you really do care” (from Southsiders’ “Kanye West”), he exhorted everyone with raised appendages to make the “L” shape with their thumb and “booger finger,” standing for love and life, a nugget off of God Loves Ugly’s earnest anthem “Love Life.”
The rapper thanked the crowd profusely for “allowing” him to sing sentimental songs like “Yesterday,” an ode to his late father from 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, widely considered to be Atmosphere’s finest album. No matter how happy Slug gets, how comfortably settled in his own “dad rap” groove — new band merchandise even appropriates the once-resented tag — he still craves our validation. It’s an endearing quality, made even more so when he tries to scatter the gratitude like so much dandelion seed: “You’ve got a lot of great music that comes through here,” he told Asheville’s faithful in a paternal tone. “And you’ve got a lot of great music that comes from here. That doesn’t happen everywhere. Don’t ever take that for granted.”
He ended with “Trying to Find a Balance,” a song from the early 2000s with a triumphantly aggressive flow that belies the New Age-y sentiment. According to critical consensus, Atmosphere’s latest work is proof that the much-sought balance has long been secured. But last night, in the tune’s closing bars, a sudden ejaculation from on-stage bubble machines — the only such display in the show — suggested that Slug’s still got lots of loving left to do.