Hip-hop’s affinity for sequels, serials, and installments is well known. We see it in “Part 2” albums like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. 2, Lil Wayne‘s Tha Carter albums, Migos‘ Culture albums, and Nas‘ King’s Disease releases. Sometimes the phenomenon occurs in chapters or volumes, as in Three 6 Mafia’s Chapter 2: World Domination and Jay-Z‘s Volumes 1-3 (In My Life Time, Hard Knock Life, and Life & Times of S. Carter) before he conceived his Blueprint albums. Nas referenced his legendary debut Illmatic when he made Stillmatic. Notorious B.I.G. followed Ready to Die with Life After Death.
At other times, hip-hop artists maintain a narrative thread through a series of songs rather than across albums. For this, we need only recall the back and forth of diss records and battle tracks from the old days, such as the perpetual stream of songs by, for, and about “Roxanne” in the 1980s or the “Bridge Wars” of the late 1980s-early 1990s between Boogie Down Productions and the Juice Crew. Similarly, there were EPMD’s series of “Jane” tracks on the group’s legendary run of albums with the word “business” in their titles.
A few theories account for this business of carrying musical or conceptual themes across hip-hop songs and albums. Perhaps hip-hop is influenced by other industries, such as the prequels, sequels, and spin-offs of the movie industry. Consider film franchises like John Wick, Mission: Impossible, Rocky and Creed, and nearly everything set in the Marvel Universe. The “series” concept is the backbone of television programming, and it’s readily apparent in commercial goods, like the endless variations of scented (and unscented) laundry detergents or the constant updates of our favorite chewing gums and candies.
Or perhaps it’s rooted in the artist and the listener becoming bonded to a musical sweet spot, so continuing a thematic convention satisfies our need for familiarity. This also explains why we deride artists for sounding too much like their own “hit” records or signature sounds and why we claim they’ve veered too far off track when they try to experiment.
I prefer the idea that hip-hop examines familiar characters and motifs in detail because the culture is composed of storytellers at heart. Once a novel concept is introduced, we enjoy its growth, its impact on other songs, and what we learn about ourselves as we internalize it.
Unsurprisingly, producer Ant (Anthony Davis) and emcee Slug (Sean Daley) of Atmosphere are accustomed to taking musical and lyrical themes they’ve already established and building upon them to create new musical chemistry. The duo’s talents sit comfortably alongside other Minnesota artists, notably Brother Ali, Big Quarters, Dessa, P.O.S., Eyedea, I Self Devine, and Lizzo, among many others. Atmosphere, though, has been preternaturally innovative when it comes to extending and expanding on musical and lyrical themes.
We’ve even seen Slug team up with Murs under the group name Felt for their celebrity-themed album series: first was 2002’s Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci; then came 2005’s Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet; and the third was 2009’s Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez. The 2020 installment was titled Felt 4 U, so possibly “U”, or us, the audience, could be the celebrities. Within that series, the first three releases devoted a few song titles (“Suzanne Vega”, “Rick James”, “Morris Day”, “Marvin Gaye”, “Kevin Spacey”) to celebrities other than the one in the album name.
In 2009, Atmosphere successfully crafted a sequel to De La Soul‘s groundbreaking “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead. That’s correct. Atmosphere wrote a continuation of someone else’s song, like the hip-hop version of fan fiction, but much more faithful to its source material. In Atmosphere’s “Millie Fell Off the Fire Escape”, Slug picked up De La Soul’s story of a teenage girl named Millie who is traumatized and assaulted by her father. Atmosphere’s song matched the samples and the narrative tension of the original, offering a surprising second act.
There’s no need to spoil the plot of either song. It is well worth the time it takes to find them and evaluate them. The point here is that the two songs are also sonically connected, like jigsaw puzzle pieces. In particular, De La Soul dramatically ends the original track by cutting the music at its surprising conclusion, ending the song with the words “…and with the quickness, it was over,” and then echoing the word “over”.
A close listen to Atmosphere’s self-described continuation of the tale reveals the echo of that word “over” being repurposed for the sequel’s beginning moments and then transformed into an earworm during the instrumental break. De La Soul’s story about Millie was suddenly not over, as Atmosphere grabbed the baton, and the microphone, in hopes of doing the tale even more justice. Fittingly, “Millie Fell Off the Fire Escape” ends with its own “it was over” and echo.
This is the lens through which we should examine Atmosphere’s 2023 release, So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously. It is a fascinating amalgam of musical styles and a lyrical mixture of emotions and passions that run the gamut from reassurance to paranoia. Its title forms the acronym “SMORES”, which is a tasty mashup of a snack. The penultimate track, “Sculpting with Fire”, bears this out, ending with, “Let’s bring it back to the original topic / It’s a graham cracker, marshmallow, and some chocolate.”
The first encounter with album opener “Okay” and its reprise in the record’s outgoing track highlights two essential features. First, this LP begs to be listened to at least a few times in its full form, sequentially and not as a random playlist, to be fully appreciated. Doing so doesn’t guarantee praise, but it’s the best way to absorb the offering fully.
Second, “Okay” emerges from a tender melody accompanied by chimes. It’s not quite the sound of a music box, but it’s close enough to recall the opening and closing moments of Atmosphere’s 2008 release When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. That album opened (through “Like the Rest of Us”) and closed (on “In Her Music Box”) with the twinkles of a music box, the kind that needs winding up to play a tune. The closer, “In Her Music Box”, draws us into the experience of a little girl’s struggle to remain well-adjusted amid family discord (“And when daddy picks mommy up, they fight”). When she rides in the backseat of the family car, she escapes by immersing herself in the tunes on the radio. Consequently, the car itself is the “music box”. By the song’s end, it’s clear that things could still be better for her.
This is not to say that So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is a sequel to When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. But they could be comfortably referred to as companion pieces, bookends even. Both rely on Ant’s eclectic tastes for musical genres, his willingness to experiment with percussion and rhythm and his knack for clever synth and guitar flourishes.
Lyrically, both albums, like all Atmosphere albums, harness Slug’s dry wit and introspection. When Life Gives You Lemons distinguished itself in Atmosphere’s discography by shifting the lens to the perspectives of others and insisting on empathy. The title suggests a form of gilding that one can paint a problem gold to move forward in life. What resurfaces when the gold paint erodes or gets peeled back is often the substance of Slug’s songcraft. While So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is less apt to switch narrative perspectives, the LP inspects the razor’s edge between opposites, where elation meets melancholy and life meets death.
So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously expands the philosophical and emotional palette of When Life Gives You Lemons, taking the opposites we all encounter to acknowledge how we blur them, combine them, and experience them sometimes all at once. As suggested by the Academy Award-winning Michelle Yeoh-led Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Atmosphere’s latest record is out to prove the simultaneity of experience or hip-hop’s version of the multiverse delivered in multiverses. So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously’s song “Thanxiety” is an excellent example of this type of blurring, the title being a portmanteau of experiencing gratitude and stress.
Slug’s poetic skills remain on display in his deployment of metaphor, humor, and astute observation. So often, Slug is a curious observer of his internal state. But So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously builds on Slug’s wordsmithing prowess by suggesting that Slug fancies himself to be a poet and a visual artist rather than a poet alone. It’s one thing to evoke imagery through language. It’s another to see oneself as an artist painting with language on a canvas of music. This yields a new interpretation for the title of When Life Gives You Lemons: if a person excels at painting, it makes sense to have confidence in painting the lemons encountered in life.
So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously frames its themes through art motifs. There’s “Sterling”, as in the alloy used for jewelry. “Dotted Lines” references all manner of boundaries without overworking the analogy. “Portrait” and “Watercolor” obviously fit the artistic theme. Meanwhile, “Still Life” aligns the concept and process of death with the beauty and dignity of rendering commonplace objects in an ornate visual style.
“Positive Space” contrasts an artist’s use of negative space, the space around the visual focal point. What, then, stands out? This song suggests that the standouts are the people who are special to us. There’s a hint of regret in this song, and a slight distance between Slug and the person he addresses, when he admits, “I won’t pretend to know how you define ‘successful’ / But I still wish you all of the success, though.” It is difficult to discern when the space in question is positive or negative in optical illusions. Once again, it’s a matter of perspective. Along these lines, the shorter tracks on the album, functioning as interludes, operate as negative space. Interspersed through the album, these interludes are juxtaposed with the longer tracks, like a sonic form of relief sculpture or carving.
In So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously’s final stages, “Bigger Pictures” embodies the best of Simultaneously’s musical and lyrical attributes. Musically, the song showcases fingerstyle guitar riffs atop heavy drums. Lyrically, Slug takes this opportunity to narrate a timeline from the age of one (“I was barely a person”) to his defensiveness at age 11 (“preemptively believed eventually I’ll be a failure”). Slug “deconstructs” his “hustle” through his “motor running” 20s, his hectic 30s, and the acceptance of a grand design in his 40s. The song works like a portfolio of memories or, as Slug explains, it’s a “book full of portraits but didn’t consider / that we’ve been sketching stick figures underneath bigger pictures.” Slug’s timeline has many family-related aspects, suggesting that family is an internal and external force that determines who we are and who we turn out to be.
The song also implies that one facet of life’s beauty awaits the next phase. Some memories have yet to be made. The timeline ends after Slug says, “And when I was 51,” leaving only the music and a lasting refrain that everything — including life, predicaments, and time – will go “on and on”. Going back to the “Millie” records by De La Soul and Atmosphere, a sudden stop to the entire track, with the words “51” echoing into the next song, might have deepened the emotional impact as much as it might have short-circuited the importance of letting the instrumental play out.
Lastly, “Sculpting with Fire” acts as So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously’s longest track, a showcase derived from the soul stylings and layered crooning of the interlude “Truth & Nail” to become an ode to making adjustments, understanding that we are shaped and strengthened by adversity (or, in this case, “fire”). Its bassline tiptoes forward, slowly, like the lagging crank of Gang Starr’s “Beyond Comprehension”. The bassline is most reminiscent of the repeating backdrop in LL Cool J’s “To Da Break of Dawn”, except reduced in speed and lowered in pitch. LL Cool J’s song sampled “Got to Get’cha” by Maceo & All the King’s Men.
The artistic terminology decorating the album is itself a metaphor, leaving us to wonder and marvel at who should be the artist, the audience, and even the canvas within our interpersonal exchanges. Yet, as intricately cerebral as So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is, some areas could be strengthened or at least reconsidered. The shorter selections, which I’ve referred to as “interludes”, could be longer, fuller, and more akin to the paintings of the other tracks and less like sketches. Seven tunes are interludes out of the 20-track playlist, and it’s up to the listener to decide how this affects the album’s flow. Maybe a better strategy would have been to offer those shorter tracks solely as instrumentals, with no lyrics, which would have connected to the abstract quality of the album art. Pete Rock & CL Smooth deftly used instrumentals as transitions between full tracks on Mecca & the Soul Brother (1992) and The Main Ingredient (1994).
Lengthening the interludes risks extending an album that already boasts a runtime of just over an hour. Further, as with many LPs that hop among genres, So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously could benefit from sonic cohesion. Mid-album track “Talk Talk” hits like a mashup of Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and something from Prince’s vault at Paisley Park. That “graffiti under the bridge” line in “Sculpting with Fire” might lend credence to some level of Prince inspiration. But while it’s my favorite track on the entire project, its presence is jarring next to its companions.
These quibbles are worthy of discussion, mainly to help contextualize what So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is designed to achieve. Yet, at the very least, the effort puts Atmosphere in the conversation for having crafted one of the year’s most intriguing albums.