Normal hip-hop questions and notions don’t usually pertain to Slug and Ant, the two parts who make the whole known as Atmosphere. Where most rappers boast of their superiority, Slug seizes the opportunity to remain humble. He often tells of his fear of fame, questioning himself at many crossroads. He laces many of his songs with a common thread of simple yet twisted storytelling – poetic stories of meeting a girl in a bar only to die in the ensuing car ride to consummate the relationship, or of dreaming of a mundane day in the life of the everyman. His love stories don’t usually end well, and he paints his reactions on paper like a human: anger tinted with regret. Meanwhile, Ant’s barebones beats lack the flash of the club, and with each progressive album, he gets a little more experimental with instruments while still holding true to the elements of hip-hop.
And so the story continues in their latest release. The Family Sign opens, fittingly, with thunderous banging on a slightly out of tune piano, soon accompanied by a bar of Slug’s circular and hard to discern lyricism. If you’re not familiar with Atmosphere, it could take you the first two minutes of the song before you discover it’s even hip-hop, not the tension-building soundtrack to a cinematic thriller. If you take anything from this opening, it’s that there will be no joking around on this album: family is not an issue to take lightly. As the song progresses, “My Key” slowly builds tension musically, adding layers of guitars, drums, bass, and chamber vocals before Slug waxes and wanes abstractly on past lives, friends and family, and lessons learned.
The abstraction is all the cushion you’ll get, though. Track two, “The Last to Say”, is perhaps one of Atmosphere’s most heartfelt songs to date, and it wastes no time getting to the crux of the matter. You can practically hear tears hit the ground as Slug pleads with his song’s subject to end a cycle of abuse in a relationship. The slow chant refrain is simple but powerful: “Let me be the last to say/ you won’t be okay/ let me be the last to say/ please don’t stay”. The gravity of his words is only heightened by the simple beat underneath them: no heavy drums, only light bass notes, and the mirrored single notes of piano and guitar.
Slug lapses into a bit of altogether incredulous storytelling before the disc’s first truly catchy tune shows up nearly 15 minutes into the album — the story of a camping trip in which the narrator’s friend is turned to a wolf seems far too similar to the Goosebumps book series to be included on a legitimate hip hop album. But in true clean-up hitter fashion, the fourth track, “Just For Show”, wipes the slate clean of the previous tracks. Though promising, the game started off slowly, but now is the time for some real excitement. This song embodies why Atmosphere, while consistently shrugging off true fame, is still around today almost 15 years after their first release. The song’s lyrics put on display true human emotion in the world of lost love — anger, denial, blame, and over-rationalization — but the musical movement is so infections, and the hook so singable, that you can’t really help but rejoice in the pain.
Unfortunately, the next few tracks show serious signs of Slug losing his flare, but Ant saves the day with Mighty Mouse proportions. “She’s Enough”, “Bad Bad Daddy”, and “Millenium Dodo” hardly represent Slug’s normal lyrical prowess, and are, at times, so obtuse they make you wonder how those words even made the final cut. This is particularly true of the hook in “Bad Bad Daddy”, which sounds like it could have been stolen from a second rate Saturday morning cartoon musical. The saving grace in these three songs is Ant’s proclivity at turning over a dead engine. “She’s Enough” has the energy to be a radio hit, while “Millenium Dodo”, though slow and quiet, is captivating in its repetitious drone.
Just as you might be considering filing this one away in your trusty CD binder, a book replete with neglected memories, along comes a song equally meaningful, melancholic and captivating as “The Last to Say”. “Who I’ll Never Be” finds Slug in awkward position — listening in reluctantly on a songwriter’s process as he yearns to be a part of that songwriting — either as a subject or a collaborator. Either way, he’s not getting what he wants: “Every song you write without me/ is just another sad song to me/ and every song you write without me/ sounds like who I’ll never be”. The Spanish-style guitar of Nate Collis who, along with keyboardist Erick Anderson, joins Slug and Ant on this song and others, is the perfect tone for the moment.
The album winds to a close on the backs of songs that fit perfectly into the dark yet mostly energetic album. “I Don’t Need Brighter Days” slows down the pace, and “Ain’t Nobody” picks it back up with another playfully sarcastic sing along hook. “Your Name Here” takes a stab at all those past girls who you feigned interest in out of sheer politeness, and “If You Can Save Me Now” tells another story of the moments following a car crash just before death. “Something So” and “My Notes” officially round out the disc in opposing fashion – the former lamenting on perhaps not being good enough to travel in certain circles, and the latter proclaiming that, as long as he’s got a voice, Slug will be around for more.
The Family Sign may sound at first disjointed and absolutely depressing, and it is, but as a whole it finds cohesiveness. Musically, it rides the highs and lows of emotion like a solitary alcohol binge, and lyrically, it hangs tightly to some of the most personal moments you could ask for from an MC. When it comes to Slug and Ant, this is what we’ve grown accustomed to, so it’s hard to call this album refreshing in any way. In actuality, The Family Sign could break your heart, but you’ll be happy it did.