By Neil Drumming
September 26, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Has it been too long since your last Eminem fix? Are you jonesing for some Bill O’Reilly-baitin’, mother-hatin’ Marshall blather? Get off it, groupie. With hip-hop gone universal, there are plenty of pithier pale boys worth your consideration — fair- skinned, phonic-obsessed phenoms with personal problems comparable to, and less galling than, Slim’s own. Admittedly, we’re talking about underground rappers, but let’s not forget, Eminem wasn’t born into a platinum playpen on Jimmy Iovine’s desk either. (Come on, you saw ”8 Mile.”) These too are America’s sons, and they’re spittin’ for their inheritance.

As the lyrical half of the Minneapolis duo Atmosphere, Slug has been beguiling college kids with his bumbling sexual conquests and self-quest for three albums. And from the opening salvo of his fourth, it seems he’s back at it again: ”While everyone was trying to outdo the last man, I was just a ghost trying to catch some Ms. Pac-Man.” The so-called emo rapper and, now, Warped Tour veteran still comes off like a philosopher-jester-gigolo riding around the world on a wave of success he never anticipated, just a punk kid from the Midwest with an inexplicable number of young devotees. (Last year, Atmosphere’s ”God Loves Ugly” sold a respectable 75,000 copies without any big-league marketing. After deflecting offers from major suitors like Atlantic and Interscope, Slug and producing partner Ant, true to their DIY ideals, licensed this record to punk label Epitaph.)

But unlike many of his fans, Slug is no kid. Thirty-one and with a son of his own, he’s one rapper who’s not out to ruin our children’s minds. On the plucky, prickly chorus of ”Apple,” he pronounces: ”Just because you’re an MC doesn’t mean that you get to be an a — hole.” And on ”Reflections,” he thinks far enough past his skirt-chasing schemes to reveal not only his conservative dreams but also his own insecurities about raising a child in an imperfect world: ”There’s no reason to lie/I’ve had a lot of lovers,” he confesses. ”In my reality it’s impossible to avoid it/But there’s one reason for life/Gotta provide some supper/Gonna build a family just to watch someone destroy it.”

With passionate inflection and pristine delivery, Slug toggles neatly among the poetic, preachy, and provocative, sometimes hitting all at once (”Who did your tattoos?/That’s nice/Who built your taboos?/That’s life”). But after 70 minutes of world-weary musing and with little variation in Ant’s linear, loop-based production, ”Seven’s Travels” feels like an overlong vacation.

At almost exactly the same length and twice the syllable- for-syllable lyrical density, Caucasian sensation Aesop Rock’s third CD manages to be more of a thrill. Not only did the brooding New Yorker lace this album with his signature schizoid imagery and spastic cadences, but also for the first time he handled the majority of the production himself. His sawtooth grooves resemble the apocalyptic, lasers-on-metal sound of Aesop’s label captain, indie-rap impresario El-P (White? Yep!), yet with an accessible, future-funk flavor OutKast — or George Clinton — would be proud to claim. (Check the oddball bounce and snap of ”Freeze” — what is that bass line, a friggin’ oboe?)

Also, it helps to enjoy Aesop’s oscillating growl simply as an instrument, considering it may take months before his endless, seemingly im-parse-able, might-be metaphors start making sense. After much repeated listening, his last LP, ”Labor Days,” resolves into a brilliant rant against the futility of the modern 9-to-5 workday. Now he’s ”trying to raise the roof in my own TV room and still get the security deposit back.” Say what?

Guess Eminem’s is not the only show in town — even if you prefer your town segregated.