How do you follow up the big one? How do you put everything you have into a piece of art, expending days, months, years of your life putting together the one ultimate, defining work of your career? This may be what was going through the heads of Ant and Slug, respectively the producer and rapper behind Atmosphere, after the release of the 70-plus-minute behemoth of an album Seven’s Travels. As it turned out, Seven’s Travels wasn’t a classic, exactly, but it did sound like every track was meticulously constructed to sound exactly like whatever artistic vision Slug and Ant were carrying around in their skulls. It’s the kind of album that can make or destroy a band, though Seven’s Travels, admittedly, did neither—It had some fantastic tracks, some filler tracks, garnered a little bit of MTV2 play, and rode off into the sunset with a net result of “slight exposure upgrade”. As far as the two men involved were concerned, however, it was the album.
So what now?
Apparently, the remedy is a simple case of scaling back, reacquainting oneself with one’s genre of choice, and kicking out some tunes with little regard for things like “artistic merit”. And for Slug and Ant, it seems to have worked. The second entry in the Felt saga (which sees the two collaborating with fellow indie-head Murs) was a hell of a lot more enjoyable than it had any right to be, given that it was an album full of silly, tossed-off party tunes. And now, almost exactly two years after the release of Seven’s Travels we are treated to an album with the unwieldy title of You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, something of a cross between the flippant Felt 2 and the heavy Seven’s Travels, presenting Atmosphere’s brand of hip-hop as a way to get whatever’s on Slug’s mind out in the open for all to see. The end result is something a little more spontaneous than we’re used to hearing from Atmosphere, and it happens to hit far more often than it misses.
As is often the case on Atmosphere records, Ant is the star of the show on You Can’t Imagine…, putting together some sick backing tracks that often steal the show from Slug’s inconsistent words. “Panic Attack” is vintage Ant, opening with what sounds like a Bill Cosby sample and then plugging headstrong into a fast, thick beat with a simple bassline and lots of buzzing noises over the top. What really makes the track, however, are the subtle touches that Ant adds as the song progresses, like the occasional subtle use of record scratches and a chunky percussive noise used to create fills in the beat. This is one of those beats that could play all day, and it’d be hard to resist in the PM as much as in the AM. Ant single-handedly saves the pointlessly angry “Bam” with a cowbell-heavy beat and some pulsing bass work, and “Pour Me Another” complement’s Slug’s drunken melodrama with a piano-dominated barroom beat. Perhaps most inspired is Ant’s transition from a classic rock solo guitar loop to a harmonica-enhanced beat in the fantastic “Smart Went Crazy”.
Slug, for his part, is also as on his game as he’s ever been. He’s best on this album when he’s reaching deep down for the emotional rhymes, as on the painful-to-listen-to “The Night”, a tale of a 16-year-old fan who was raped and killed after a show in Albuquerque. Slug is actually more restrained than his typical “shout ‘til they hear you” style, here relating the tale in a quiet, more menacing tone—one that sounds most convincing as he tells the offender “You’re locked up for now, you’ll have no more chances to steal the children’s laughs / And if you ever find God, better pray to her, and ask that we never cross paths”. It’s the kind of line that leaves a chill in the listener’s spine, the kind of personal nugget that allows a fan to identify with an artist even if said listener has never had an experience that’s even close to as affecting.
Elsewhere on the album, Slug alternates between navelgazing and puffing his chest. There’s a constant undercurrent of loss and loneliness throughout the album, as Slug lets loose with lines like “These drugs ain’t as good as we wish they were / This buzz doesn’t keep us from missing her” (from “Say Hey There”), and “The only women who love you are fans and family / Mom has no choice, but fans leave you randomly” (addressed to himself, from “Little Man”). The audience that Atmosphere has cultivated thus far through exercises in catharsis like “Tryin’ to Find a Balance” and, well, pretty much all of Lucy Ford will find plenty to identify with in these tracks. Less effective are Slug’s call-outs to the ever present haters, dropping weak, belligerent rhymes like “What the fuck you thinkin’? / You frustrated or somethin’? / You have a bad week, man?”, part of the silly “Watch Out”, where he seems to aim for Chuck D but can only manage Cool J. Recent Cool J, that is.
Fortunately, Ant is there to pick up the pieces and make Sluggy easy to ignore.
You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having is proof that even in the world of indie hip-hop, you don’t need to make a statement album to make a solid album. You don’t need an overarching point, as long as you can string together some solid rhymes. You don’t need your production to follow a theme, as long as you can find some beats that fucking bump. And you don’t need a particular source of inspiration, as long as the performance is inspired. In short, this album should never have worked.
But it does.