“Now this is goddamn American rap music.”

There’s a very, very short list of rappers compelling enough to warrant your full attention on a thrown-together, thoroughly directionless EP. Fortunately, in 2002 both Slug and Murs were card carrying members of that club. Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci is simultaneously unassuming and utterly bizarre (not many rap albums have songs framed as responses to Suzanne Vega records), and it’s as strong an argument as has been made for the two as rappers. Produced entirely by Grouch (of Living Legends fame), the record feels spontaneous, even schizophrenic, but upon closer inspection is balanced and sequenced impeccably.

For as natural as the pairing seems, putting Slug and Murs together at this point in their careers really flew in the face of all reason. It would be easy to cordon off the two in Important Ideas territory, but the conceits that drove their careers were very different: Where Slug was a navel-gazing record store employee dispensing wisdom to college kids in dive bars, Murs was the post-Tupac social revolutionary for the part of the underground community that was slow to pull the trigger on the internet. The former had gained a measure of national attention with Lucy Ford‘s cryptic, obscured witticisms, but the latter was an intense, linear storyteller. By some stroke of luck or good judgment, Christina Ricci saw most of the socio-political weight of their solo careers take a backseat to irreverent stream-of-consciosness tales of parties gone wrong and stealing girls from rock stars.

“Suzanne Vega” is a perfect microcosm for the record–a song that could more than survive on the strength of its atmosphere and a couple of cleverly deployed cultural references, but instead overwhelms with how simply brilliant the writing is. Murs opens with “On 3rd and La Cienega, can’t front, I was into her/She offered me a blunt, damn, I wish I smoked indica“, a two-bar clinic on how to build dense, twisting rhyme schemes that don’t for a second distract from the words themselves. Slug goes on to detail a mystery woman’s facial piercings and “half-done sleevework“. On “Rick James”, the Minneapolis native politely admits “I’m not trying to be rude/but I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth“. “Hot Bars” has the two promising “we spit hot…bars, we spit on cop…cars“, which is more or less as deep as the first five proper songs get.

If the distinction between this record and their solo material felt dismissive of the latter, I should correct that–Murs and Slug are exceptionally good at what they do, including their heaviest undertakings. One of the reasons they’re able to take on subject matter that rappers as a whole tend to butcher is their insistence on finding interesting, unusual roads into the topics. So Murs’s verse on “Another Knight” isn’t really about immigration or gold diggers or Latin porn websites, but it’s kind of about all of them, and it presents a confusing, emotionally taxing story in a way that avoids all moralizing or cliche. And when Slug, on closer “All I Can Do” talks about “the struggle between apathy and irony“, he’s touching pretty accurately on the psyche of people of a certain generation–and a certain place on the socio-economic ladder–but not a problem that he and Murs fall victim to here. A Tribute To Christina Ricci is mostly unqualified fun, and most of the grizzled life advice comes from the rap equivalent of comic book heroes back to save the day.