March 12, 2014

Paul Thompson originally hails from Minnesnowta. 

“Plus you’re getting old, your raps are exhausted/Stop it, everybody knows that you’ve lost it” –Slug, 2005

Slug should feel validated: he was right and you were wrong. After 2005’s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, Minneapolis’ favorite drifter shed the sad clown introspection for stories about regular people with shitty bosses and shittier health insurance. Over the deafening protests of college kids and indie-rap purists, he strayed from what made Atmosphere famous. And it worked.

The neo-Slick Rick bent of When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold (2008) and the accompanying EPs (four installments of the Sad Clown Bad Dub series, each named after a season, and Leak At Will) came at the tail end of Wayne’s ungodly run. It was a sober counterpoint—a deluge of material, but all of it carefully edited and in service of a precise, decidedly populist worldview.

Behind the boards, producer Ant took risks as well, letting his famous record stacks collect dust while he corralled a host of studio musicians. But it was Slug’s writing—political but never preachy, stunningly naturalistic—that gave Atmosphere a creative and commercial second wind. Lemons was a world entirely Slug’s own, a world he navigated with a hangover, or through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl, or on the bus to the overnight shift at a convenience store. And just as it was coming into focus, it was a world he abandoned.

“Just For Show”, the single in advance of follow-up LP The Family Sign (2011), was all about validation. Ostensibly a breakup song, it was really an open letter to those who had balked at Atmosphere’s creative left turns. The sentiment was more than earned, but things got a bit complicated when the album came out: it was, frankly, bad. The group—now expanded to include two of the musicians from Lemons—was approaching middle age and, secure with this, set out to make an album about family. A noble cause, sure, but the odes to domesticity and monogamy (“Something So” and “She’s Enough”, respectively) were painfully broad.

The Family Sign was musically flat, and the emcee did nothing to salvage the wreckage. Once subversive and self-aware, Slug’s writing was shockingly heavy handed. “Bad Bad Daddy” is one extended ‘get-off-my-lawn’ cry, and he slips in and out of 1986 throughout the record (“It happened fast/Like a camera flash/The accident/Then the aftermath”). The one song that ranks among Atmosphere’s best work, “Millennium Dodo”, is a Technicolor collage of antihero imagery entirely out of place in the middle of the album.

Three years later, Atmosphere is back, pared down to its original two-man lineup. Southsiders comes out May 6th, but maybe it shouldn’t. On Monday they let loose of “Bitter”, the flat lead single. Slug takes the position that his detractors are merely bitter (and as “cold as a river/in the winter”), a philosophy as persistent as it is nonsensical. The premise wouldn’t doom the song, though, if it weren’t for the tone-deaf hook and paint-by-numbers writing. “Bitter” is as aphoristic as your annoying friend on twitter. (Slug warns that “you don’t want to be a victim to victory”, even with that “chip on your shoulder/as big as a boulder”.) The chorus is presumably culled from Eminem’s Recovery sessions.

It’s not all bad, though. Ant brings his A-minus game, at least. And the first half of the third verse is inspired, recalling Slug’s bizarre best: “Treat love like a limited resource/Fight for it like there’s never gonna be more/On the rooftop, talk to the spaceships/Like you’ve got Tupac locked in the basement”. But soon, it’s back to the same: “Not only are we bitter, but we’re brittle/The world’s getting small, everybody’s little”.

There’s probably a way to convey maturity and forty-plus happiness on a rap album, but the Minneapolis legends haven’t cracked the code yet. “Bitter” is tired, trite, and indignant for all the wrong reasons. As Slug says on the song, insecurity’s a slippery slope.

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