“I wear my scars like the rings on a pimp / I live life like the captain of a sinking ship / The one thing that I can guarantee / I'm like a steppin' razor, I suggest you stay fair with me” —Atmosphere, “GodLovesUgly.”
Atmosphere have long been in negotiations with their pain. Since 1997, the duo—once trio—of Sean “Slug” Daley and Anthony “Ant” Davis have wrestled with pain and heartache over break beats and dusty loops to their hearts’ malcontent.
From the Lucy Ford EPs to 1999’s Headshots Se7en, the group has been unhinged in one way or another. Be it from the drinking, the regret, the wrong women at the wrong times, or worse yet, the right women at the worst times; there has always been a thorn in Atmosphere’s side.
We laud them as emo-rap as if it were a bad thing to be emotionally aware. In truth, Atmosphere carry the blueprint of emotive hip-hop across their discography. They normalize the grotesque, they affirm the unbecoming, and on their 2002 opus God Loves Ugly, they found a way to demystify pain for all-time.
God Loves Ugly is a battered break-up record for the ages. Slug has been dumped, not by one woman, but by all women. He has been left on the fringes of love with his drink of choice and a meal ticket. He is somber and embittered, and Ant reflects his derelict mood via snappy drums and samples of child’s taunts.
Calls of being “so ugly” open the album, followed by a peeved Slug declaring: “Atmosphere and maybe you don't like us / But of all the stars in the sky, believe we're one of the brightest.” From “Onemosphere” to the bonus cuts, Slug is on the defensive, and as a scorned man, we don’t expect much else from him.
Yet, these opening bars serve as the accidental thesis of the album. While much of God Loves Ugly has to do with trying to recoup a sense of self after love goes south, the album is just as much about finding your self-worth out from the rubble and doing so successfully. To achieve this, we have to elevate Atmosphere’s negotiations to include the listener, who takes Slug’s constant self-hate and deprecation as a lesson in what not to do in the face of struggle.
In that way, the album subverts itself without so much as trying. That is to say, while God Loves Ugly plays at the blueprint for emo-rap, it’s also a self-help book read in the inverse. The onus is on the listener to lift the life lessons Slug peppers by way of flaunting his mistakes. His honesty is our redemption. His honesty is our guide.
The album operates on several kingpins. The first of which is “Fuck You Lucy,” which is the break-up track of all our lives. Consider this the conclusion of the Lucy Ford EPs, and a formal “Fuck off” to the man Slug was when under the Lucy spell. On “Fuck You Lucy,” Slug is destroyed. His art suffers (“Most of this garbage I write that these people seem to like / Is about you and how I let you infect my life”) and so does his self-esteem.
Without Lucy, Slug is rudderless and altogether in shambles. This is not because she is some great lover, but rather she has come to represent the attractiveness of pain and the terrible things we do to escape the pain. Of course, our vices only serve to keep us trapped. This is why our fabled Lucy Ford stands for addiction in the same way she stands for all the women who have hurt Slug.
Atmosphere gravitate towards what hurts them in much the same way poet Lorca writes of his sorrow donning rouge. The moral here is that “Fuck You Lucy” plays two roles. Firstly, it sets up Slug to explore the ugliest parts of himself across God Loves Ugly with reason, and secondly, it is a lesson in subversion.
“Fuck You Lucy”’s narrative is: questionable break-up anthem. As we watch Slug come undone, we can’t help but feel perhaps he is overreacting. There’s an almost childish air to the track that causes us to step back and reassess what it is that Slug is attempting to accomplish with his outburst. Our questioning spirit is what ultimately transforms “Fuck You Lucy” into a lesson on processing pain without becoming victim to it.
This is the lesson of all of God Loves Ugly. As Slug explores the depths of his hurt, as we tumble through the doldrums, we come away with the notion that his pain is not monstrous nor is it gratuitous. It simply is. When Slug declares that he wears his scars “like the rings on a pimp,” we conclude that this venture through pain does not come with a power imbalance.
Pain is a character on God Loves Ugly, not some ubiquitous thing to be feared. Slug does not run from what hurts him, he churns through the pain. His constant confrontation, then, is not to be mocked or boxed in as the ire of emo-rap but rather can be seen as his attempt to demystify pain. He is eye level with what hurts him, and that is all he needs to be able to let go. Slug’s pain has no hold over him, so he can move through his struggles freely.
We do not need to stand above our pain, and Slug certainly does not rise above on God Loves Ugly. Where he sinks, we see pain as a tangible thing, and not some ephemeral disease-like being. On this album, Atmosphere strike at our hearts like serpents. They weave tales of sorrow and scale our consciousness like vines, all to the point of arriving at the second kingpin: “GodLovesUgly.”
Here, we get the meat of the demystification of pain, because Slug separates himself from his hurt, and engages in a conversation with us and this other self. We get his dreams and his fears, and we get his wistful self-deprecation (“My name's Slug, I've come to kill a couple minutes”). By this point in the album, this has all become very regular, and through that regularity, we can learn to see pain as a part of life and nothing more. It cannot scare us any longer.
“And when the soul begins to reap, I think she'll know me from the sleep / I keep caught in the corner of my bloodshot eyes / And if she has the nerve, to let me dump a couple last words / I'm gonna turn to the earth and scream ‘Love your life!’” —Atmosphere, “Lovelife”
Still, it would be unfair to suggest that Atmosphere were subverting themselves without a clue. The presence of our third kingpin, “Lovelife,” tells us all we need to know on the matter: the duo were trying. Moreover, it is through subversion that we can even arrive at “Lovelife” and have it be a novel moment. It’s clear that the duo wanted to send a message with God Loves Ugly that extends beyond sitting in the filth of misery.
“Lovelife” is the shining beacon of optimism on the record, one that exists without boasts (“The Bass and the Movement”) or the presence of party drugs (“Flesh”). When Slug departs from being an addled lover, we strip away the need to subvert and get into an engaging dialog on healing.
Rife with lessons, the final admittance that “I'll give all I got left just to teach you to read” gives us the clues we need to figure out that Sean Daley was not stewing for the sake of stewing. He was showing us that the only way out is through, but also showing us that sometimes you hit a roadblock or two on your way out as well.
God Loves Ugly, then, presents the dos and don’ts of emotional healing, all the point of suggesting that we should own our pain, not be ashamed of it.
In demystifying pain, Slug gives us the opportunity to get a leg up on what hurts us and teaches us to be proud of those scars we wear. They are, after all, what makes us who we are.