BETWEEN THE SOUTH BRONX and Los Angeles, all the way to the U.K. and Japan, from disco breaks to 808s to Fred Wesley loops to

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Lost and Found

Atmosphere find a balance between hip-hop bravado and emo vulnerability.

BETWEEN THE SOUTH BRONX and Los Angeles, all the way to the U.K. and Japan, from disco breaks to 808s to Fred Wesley loops to grimy Morricone piano to glossy flossin synth-twerkin, from black to white to man to woman, from teacher to gangsta to backpacker to ladies man, raps one constant has always been the MCs reluctance to show vulnerability. Rappers may have moments of self-doubt and paranoia and fear shrouded in veils of anger and defiance, but in the end, that MC will always come out on topwinning you over with charm, intimidating you with a steely resilience, or simply coming across as someone youd want to hang out with. Pessimism is comparatively raresomewhere between apathy and laziness on the list of things rap isnt especially conducive to.

Yet Sean Slug Daley positively revels in his modesty. Maybe thats why he keeps getting mistaken for an indie-rock kidthat, and the fact that Atmosphere, the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Slug shares with producer Ant, have just signed with modern-punk touchstone Epitaph Records. But the move is logical not only as a crossover coup but as another example of Atmospheres self-contained vision of where rap can go. Atmospheres records didnt get anywhere near the ink of their indie-minded compatriots on the Anticon or Definitive Jux labels (Slug has collaborated extensively with members of both camps), but they handily outsell any artist on either label, and Slug has honed his electrifying live show by playing 200 dates a year. A master of both the pity and the party, he spent lots of last years God Loves Ugly talking tougher than usualthe better, it seemed, to deal with the very real possibility of mainstream stardom.

SEVENS TRAVELS (Rhymesayers/Epitaph), Atmospheres fourth full-lengthto be released Sept. 23, a week after Slugs Showbox appearanceis far more expansive. Here, he lets his previous albums dick-grabbing facade fade into a shivering, bloodshot, hungover gloom; theres a Day-Glo Nerf edge to many of his barbs that tempers his multidirectional bitterness into an amiable smart-assedness. The angst only seems prominent because most people dont expect hip-hop stars to be this human, this warts and all.

Slug sounds like hes come to grips with his place in hip-hops firmament: If he becomes a star, great. If he doesnt, well, thats fine, too. However successful he gets, what Slug thrives on is movement. Travels begins with a preflight announcement and ends with a celebration of returning to and repping ones home, and in the midst of it all are tales of Los Angeles debauchery, Denver isolation, and navigating through this basement that masquerades as a nation (Cats Van Bags). Slug drops himself into the time-worn nomads narrative genre, and it fits like a straitjacket. Ants production is the best imaginable travelogue; he does more with a five-second loop than most dollar-store RZAs can with a syringe full of Pete Rocks mojo. Cats Van Bags growls like a wolverine panting through a vocoder; The Keys to Live vs. 15 Minutes of Fame juices Planet Rock electro with a hit of bubbly 50s Latin velour exotica; Lift Her Pull Her is simply the most beautiful beat Slugs ever rhymed over, a dawn-break make-out session between a celestial acoustic guitar and a fiercely neck-snapping drum break.

But the real prize here is hearing how comfortable Slugs vocal style has become. On 2001s Lucy Ford, he honed his everyman persona; God Loves Ugly let him exorcise his anger. Now, his everyman is more worldly, both in outlook (hes cooler but still accessible) and in sheer skills. On Sevens Travels, Slug spits rhymes with an efficiency and clarity possessed by few of his peers. There are no redundancies or non sequiturs thrown in simply to avoid obviousness; nothing is gratuitous. He can rampage: The emotional violence of Bird Sings Why the Cage I Know (Shes a snake that can fly/Shes just food for the fleas/She thinks shes better than me/Just because shes free?!) is unnerving. He follows that up with the upbeat girlfriend-screening cockiness of Reflections: When youre all alone, Ill sing into your phone/If you dont know your words, you can make up your own. (Theres also a great role-reversed tweaking of God Loves Uglys Modern Mans Hustle. The original lyrics: I said, Ill make you smile for simple fact Im good at it/I said, Ill make you smile just so I can sit and look at it. The new ones: She said, Ill make him smile for the simple fact that he needs it/Ill make him smile just so I can kill it/And eat it.) And Shoes, the albums sparsest track (a recasting of Run-D.M.C.s beat-and-bass-line-only Perfection), comes on like a three-car pileup of the Liks J-Ro, Lifter Pullers Craig Finn, and Mystery Science Theater 3000s Joel Hodgson. Slug spends Shoes stumbling from living room to bedroom to bathroom, rambling about a sloppy one-night stand and cramming in the slickest Scooby-Doo reference ever amongst mumbly oscillations between tumescent hopefulness and headachy irritation.

SLUGS OVERARCHING motivation for becoming a wandering missionary speaking the gospel of his own personality cult goes back to the unconscious reason most people take road trips: to find themselves. Its no accident that he ends the album with Always Coming Back Home to Youor that the song opens with an homage to Mobb Deeps Shook Ones and is addressed with a smirk to emo kids who got too many feelings. The song pivots on a moment in which Slug runs across a terrified teenager who asks the rapper to ditch a gun he found on the street. The only thing Slug can think to do is drop it in a mailbox.

In a way, one title here says it all: Trying to Find a Balance. But when Slug prefaces that song by muttering, Atmosphere finally made a good recordyeah, right/That . . . almost sounds convincing, its the most loaded statement on the album. Whos Slug trying to convince? Himself? His fans? His detractors? Is he doubting or defending himself? Is he aware that hes finally reached his destination? Between his Id kill you all if I wasnt so passive persona, his massive indie-rock crossover audience, and the should-be-extraneous-but-isnt detail of his being light-skinned enough to pass as white, Slugs probably got a lot of folks to persuade. But fuck itIm convinced.

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Atmosphere play with Mr. Dibbs, Micranots, Brother Ali & BK One, DeeJay Bird, Vitamin D, and Oddjobs at Showbox, 8 p.m., Mon., Sept. 15. $15 adv./$18.

 
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