Raw, relatable emotion is not something that is usually found in hip hop. You could argue that some modern acts, such as Kanye West and Kid Cudi, do seem to try very hard to put some emotions into their music, but the constant drug and fame references make it difficult for an everyday man, such as myself, to relate. However, if you can break the surface of mainstream rap and enter the world of indie hip hop, one of the first names you hear can open your mind to a brand of hip hop that truly describes what it is to live. That seemingly is seeing life through your own eyes. Welcome to the all too real world of Atmosphere.
Atmosphere, composed mainly of Sean “Slug” Daley on the mic and Anthony “Ant” Davis manning the production, have been pioneers in adding heart to hip hop for more than a decade. They have crafted album after album chock full of dark, minor key instrumental beats with lyrics that would fit well in any 16 year old emo kid’s AIM profile (somehow I mean that in a good way). Godlovesugly and Seven’s Travels saw Atmosphere begin to leak into the consciousness of the general public, with songs such as “Trying to Find a Balance” and “National Disgrace” even appearing in late night segments on MTV that actually played music videos!
Since those albums, they seem to be drifting through a musical metamorphosis. They became more inspired by blues and storytelling. Life’s trials and triumphs began to replace the depression caused by women and alcohol. They began to find their niche. This began to show on 2008’s on and off When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Best Album Title Ever). While a great deal of effort seemed to be put in this record, and some of the songs were truly emotional compositions that gripped you with believable, heart wrenching stories accompanied by equally jarring soundtracks (“Guarantees”, “Yesterday”), a good chunk of the record just seemed to fall flat. It seemed as though Slug and Ant were just testing the water, and that was only confirmed with their next full length album release three years later, The Family Sign.
The Family Sign is not an overwhelming change from the Atmosphere of old. You still get tracks that could seemingly fit on Godlovesugly, with Slug’s snarky cynicism and metaphorical sarcasm shining through minimalist, slightly murky beats on tracks such as “Millennium Dodo” and “Bad Bad Daddy”. While those kinds of tracks are good for what they are, Slug and Ant really shine when they delve into their newer sound. Album opener, “My Key”, really gives you a good feel of what they have become, with a slow guitar melody and almost mesmerizing, faint sung vocals, you are snatched back to reality as Slug comes in nearly two minutes into the song with “I watch the sunset, I saw the snowfall, I stole paint to write your name on the stone wall.” The song contains lyrics that show Sean analyzing his relationship, fatherhood, and what it really means to have a family he loves. While that track has somewhat of an uplifting vibe, the next song “Last To Say”, could be one of the most depressing songs ever made. Lyrically, it really shows Slug’s true power as a storyteller, as he details domestic violence being passed on from father to son. Every word is carefully scripted in a way that you feel it in your stomach and chest, his words grabbing your mind and imprinting images that are hard to get out. Again, Ant’s production is perfect, using light, minor key piano strokes with gently wailing guitar notes to create a very somber soundscape, pairing perfectly with the distressing lyrics.
Most songs on the album seem to be products of this new direction they have taken. “I Don’t Need Better Days” is a standout track, with its moody beat with a constantly riffing fuzzy guitar being the canvas for Slug’s dark but yet somehow slightly uplifting lyrics. “You’re Name Here” is a great dialog track that shows Slug having some fun with an awkward run in with the ex. “Something So” is a very beautiful track that builds as it progresses, which I personally love to hear in a track. The album ends with maybe the highlight track of the album in “My Notes”. It is a beautiful piano track that lifts you back up after all the despair and anguish that is portrayed in the rest of the album. My only gripe is it is a very short song, with only one verse.
Now don’t get me wrong, this record is not the perfect Atmosphere record, and there is certainly room for improvement. “Just For Show” is a song that seems like it was made solely as a single. With a catchy yet boring hook and a strange reggae type beat, it just does not hold your attention. The next song, “She’s Enough,” also does not hold up on the album. The beat sounds like a weird 90’s rock song and the lyrics are very uninteresting as Slug explains what he would do for his woman.
Besides a few songs not really holding their weight with the rest of the album, the mood of the album also can be a little off-putting. Songs about real life hardships do not make for easy listens. It is really a “in the mood” type of album. That being said, I’m not sure who decided to release this album in April, but really? You’re going to release one of the most somber, melancholy collection of rap songs right before summer. Poor life choice.
All in all Atmosphere are getting closer to achieving their perfect sound. With each record they put out, they give you more songs that are just seem to feel right, mixing heartfelt musical compositions with gritty but well crafted lyrics that will sound as if they’re the stories of a real person. Like you.
PS – Download the deluxe version so you get the song “Cut You Down.” Its good shit.