Alex Wagner goes by the name Slum Chronic when he's on stage. His music matches the down-and-out pseudonym he raps by. His sound breathes different shades of black that vary from song to song with varying levels of intensity but always the same amount of rugged emotion. The question Slum Chronic's music poses isn't if the listener digs it or not. The question is if they can empathize with the darkest moments it sinks to, alongside the uplifting peaks it touches.
Wagner's new album under the Chronic pen name, titled HABITS, can make a listener ponder this. Utilizing an unhurried stoner jazz-rap aesthetic, the LP sees Wagner disclosing the details of his average daily routine. Needless to say, it gets personal. Some of the daily habits on HABITS are Wagner attempting to cope with sadness, depression, anger, and little moments of "exuberant happiness," as he puts it. "I've been through a lot of personal struggle this past year on top of making this album," says Wagner. "I've put most of it, if not a good bit of it, into [HABITS]. Definitely expressed it."
"They said I'd fall short of what I will do/ And if I do that, feel free to take a hatchet/ Bash my brains out/ 'Til you find every thought I've kept from you," he raps on "Minneapolis." One song later, on "Creature of Habit," Wagner offsets that brash exposure with an affirmation of hope for the future. "Know yourself and what you're worth/ I've been through hell and I know it hurts/ But believe me when I say shit could be a whole lot worse." That's a pretty regular occurrence on HABITS.
"I like to make myself open and vulnerable," says Wagner. "I think it helps me connect with people more and hopefully people can connect with it more."
Sonically, the music is a mixture of old and new. HABITS fuses the jazz-rap beats of yesteryear's Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest with the floaty sounds of modern, chilled-out production values. "A lot of the influence is primarily jazz music," he says. "Primarily the fact that it's all very displaced and sporadic." While it's not initially apparent, Golden Age hip-hop is a key influence on the album. "I've been telling people for a while now I'm striving to bring it back — kill this whole mumble rap era," Wagner laughs. "I will do it myself if I have to."
The sounds of HABITS aren't necessarily experimental, but Wagner sees the production as being peculiar enough to leave an impact. "A lot of the production is very, very odd. In all honesty, I probably would have had a lot more features on the album if a lot of the artists weren't like 'I can't rap over this beat,'" he says.
Wagner's group of rappers and producers, the Lo-Fi Blac Collective, aided in the recording and writing process where they could. "It made putting the album together a little easier, having that team there behind me," says Wagner. Some members of the Collective were an essential aspect to HABITS. Johnny Mav, Slim Cocaine, and Jeff Kush all jump on the Lo-Fi Blac posse cut "Look Alive," while Oatmello contributes laid-back production to soothing album highlight "Levitate/Come Back."
Originally, Lo-Fi Blac was intended to be a record label that catered towards all indie music. But, as it grew and Wagner began recruiting artists from around the nation, it became too exhausting for him. The change lead Wagner to retool Lo-Fi Blac into something of a support group of tight-knit artists. Everyone features each other regularly and promotes each other's music where they can. "It was supposed to be more catered towards lo-fi hip-hop, but the artists I have now all each do their own thing," says Wagner.
Slum Chronic promises that 2018 will be a big year for the Collective. "I might be taking it more towards the whole label direction, again," he says. "Not necessarily an indie label, but setting some standards and getting all of my artists in the right place and making sure that they get shows booked."
HABITS began as a natural growth from Chronic's prior EP, EPISODES. Since its release earlier this year, Wagner has noticed a significant rise in positive feedback, saying "I think in HABITS, I really found my sound."