Atmosphere, ‘Southsiders’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
Atmosphere’s longevity and success are incredible. Outside of Tech N9ne, there are few independent hip-hop acts who can match the Minneapolis, MN duo’s résumé. Slug and Ant are founders of Rhymesayers, which remains one of the top indie rap labels to this day. They’ve also amassed a loyal legion of fans as the flagship group of the aforementioned label.
Slug’s brutally honest rhymes and penchant for colorful storytelling paired with Ant’s skillful mastery of the boards has connected with listeners ranging from the most ardent hip-hop head to the indie rock fan who barely acknowledged rap’s existence. And while onetime member Spawn did exit the group in the early stages, Atmosphere has also managed to avoid the breakup/reunion saga that plagues many groups who’ve been around for close to two decades.
The duo’s eighth studio album, ‘Southsiders’, follows Atmosphere’s progression as not just artists, but the men behind the music. The angst-fueled and sarcastic sentiments that were once commonplace for Slug are replaced by poignant wisdom and appreciation. Ant is no longer crate-digging for the perfect loops, but tasked with bringing a vibrant sound to life using a band. These developments are not brand new, but ‘Southsiders’ feels the finely tuned result of Atmosphere’s growth over the past six or so years.
While Slug’s outlook is different, one thing that hasn’t changed is his subject matter. He is still an open book as his life experiences are on the full display once again. ‘Camera Thief,' the opening track, serves as a prologue of sorts. Slug catches you up to speed as he fills in the blanks for the years between 2011’s ‘The Family Sign’ and the release of ‘Southsiders.’ The track’s structure is far from formulaic, emphasizing Slug’s every word and following the steadying hand of Ant’s piano-driven production with an extended intro and outro.
Ant continues his trend of using live instrumentation and forgoing the sample-based, stripped down production style that he once used. Now, Ant is more of an orchestra conductor.as opposed to the one-man beat making machine.
If you were not a fan of this shift that started back on 2008’s ‘When Life Gives You Lemons’, you won’t find anything on ‘Southsiders’ that harkens back to the old days. But if you were on board for this change, you’ll see that Ant has seemingly found the sweet spot of this new formula.
On the vocal side, there’s perhaps no better example of Slug’s evolution as an MC than his performance on ‘Star Shaped Heart’. In the past, Slug would look to match this type of booming beat with an equally intense delivery. Instead, Slug stays even-keeled as he deftly maneuvers through the soundscape without being so forceful.
The title track, ‘Southsiders’, is a clear standout with its vintage sound. Ant utilizes hard-hitting drums and an omnipresent guitar to create a frenetic beat as Slug boasts about Atmosphere’s staying power in the rap game.
A staple of Slug’s storytelling has always been his relationships, and this album is no different. ‘Mrs. Interpret’ sees Ant provide a mellow backdrop as Slug expresses his admiration for a love interest while lamenting his tendency to misread the opposite sex.
‘My Lady Got Two Men’ is one of Atmosphere’s most creative tracks to date. On the surface, the song appears to be a case of Slug being stuck in love triangle and fighting for his girl’s undying attention. But as the story unfolds, Slug reveals that it is competition between himself.
Slug raps, “But I don't expect you to change the arrangement / and the truth is I try to support / but I can't thrive when I'm ignored / and I can see that you don't wanna cut the cord / but it's gotta be something more than this tug of war / girl you the shine on the crown / so why you try and let that clown come around / from now and till the universe swallows the Earth / I won't pretend that I can follow how it works / ever since this began I've been a different man / and then a different man and then a different man / I wonder who I'm gonna be tonight / just take our hand and it'll be alright / come here.”
The tone changes for ‘Flicker’, which is easily the most powerful song on the album. In an ode to the late Eyedea, Slug revisits their close friendship and mourns his passing. Slug doesn’t gloss over anything over the ups and downs though, expressing regret for how the two grew apart. Slug’s heartfelt words are sure to hit home for anyone who has lost a loved one.
‘Southsiders’ is an amazing experience for those who have been along for the ride with Slug and Ant all these years. The two have managed to evolve and progress naturally over the years while still staying true to themselves. This album is certainly not the place for any kind of introduction to Atmosphere, nor one for those who simply crave for the duo to fall back on the tropes of their earliest work. But for those who have faithfully followed the path of Atmosphere’s journey, ‘Southsiders’ is fitting reward for this latest stop on the enduring road.