2003 will go down as the year when rap finally overtook dance pop (née disco) as the driving force of Top 40 radio. By this summer, more than a quarter of the radio's most played tracks were rap songs, and 40 percent of the top 30 were rap hits. And that's not counting R&B monsters like Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" that feature rappers. Judging by how the charts have played out since then, the year-end numbers shouldn't be much different. Don't look now, but rap music is now the pop music of the mainstream. (Well, duh.)
It makes sense, then, that indie rap has started to gain ground as an alternative to all the "bling, bling, booty, booty" stuff your hot new music station spins 24/7. Along with Jurassic 5, the Coup, and Blackalicious, Minneapolis' Atmosphere (comprised of rapper Slug and producer Ant) has emerged as an underground rap group to watch. The group is worshipped in their hometown, where suburban groupies drool over every reference to Uptown and Franklin Avenue as validation that the Twin Cities might finally have something other than the Replacements to brag about. Fact is, Atmosphere is a safe group for white dudes who normally don't like rap music to dig. There's none of that tough guy 50 Cent posturing that puts them off, and that Slug guy sure seems like one of us. Hilariously, Slug has been called an "emo" rapper, something he can't take as a compliment, though given his preference for rapping about girls, feelings, and feeling about girls, he paradoxically encourages it.
I'm no rap expert, so maybe I'm missing something here. But to my ears Atmosphere's latest album, Seven's Travels doesn't seem like a viable alternative to the commercially successful stuff that currently rules the roost. Yes, I know it's indie, meaning it is more introspective and less catchy than, say, Chingy. I'm sure your typical Atmosphere fan could give me a condescending speech about how they make "intelligent" music that acts as an "antidote" to the "brainless" music that passes for rap on the radio. They will speak earnestly about how the world needs to be saved from sucka MC who use Neptunes beats and R&B divas in the bridge. And maybe they are right. But I'm just not feeling it. Thing is, I think the latest Neptunes album has much better music than the blandly rote tracks Ant cooks up here. Seven's Travels can't touch the innovative strangeness of the new OutKast record. And Slug clearly is inferior to many of the MCs who sell more records than he does (including, but not exclusive to, Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Andre 3000, and even the under-rated Nelly. Hold your noses, snobs.)
For the most part, rap music still is enjoying a golden age where the best artists often are the most popular. So where does that leave Atmosphere? Moving in the wrong direction. "In the days of kings and queens I was a jester", Slug says at the start. You wish, pal. Not only are you not a king, you ain't even a jester. A jester is supposed to be entertaining. Slug's failure as an MC is that he doesn't (1) make you laugh and/or (2) dazzle you with amazing word play. Slug has shown intermittently that he is capable of both the former ("Like Today") and the latter ("The Woman with the Tattooed Hands") on the much loved Lucy Ford EPs. But on Seven's Travels, Slug sounds as monochromatic as the cover looks. This is a tour album, and the lyrical content belies a weariness that comes from spending too much time away from home. At least that's what other reviewers have said about this record. No matter how many times I listen to Seven's Travels, Slug's inability to make me care makes it impossible for me to concentrate on what he's trying to say. I keep getting distracted by other things, like cleaning my stereo. Sorry, I know that might not sound professional. (Not that I'm being paid for this review anyway.) But life is too short to spend valuable time with a record as essentially inessential as Seven's Travels. On the other hand, you should see my stereo. It's sparkling.