The last time we heard Atmosphere, they had made a sizable departure from the sound fans were used to hearing. Their 2011 Family Sign album featured live instruments and a noticeable relaxation and contentment in the lyrics (at least as content as Slug would ever get). This can be attributed to the fact that Atmosphere’s once troubled and angry lyricist was now a father of two and finally in a state of mind to accept that life was pretty good. Gone were the God Loves Ugly and Lucy Ford sentiments, and here were feelings of a family man. So where does one go when you’ve been sitting home playing Legos with your kids for the better part of the last two years? What’s left to rap about?
On Southsiders, the listener is given a peek into Slug’s new state of mind. There are moments of hope and maturation, but there is a presence of fear and doubt, as well. When one has dealt with pain and anger all throughout youth, the happiness in adulthood is a welcomed change, but it’s frightening to think that it could all collapse at any moment. This is the new Atmosphere.
The album opens up with a dark, haunting beat that picks up where “My Notes” left off on Family Sign. Records like “Arthur’s Song” and “Mrs. Interpret” are vintage Slug, as he details problems with substances and women, respectively. The latter is bursting with beautiful nostalgia, ripe with classic Atmosphere charm and humor, and is only bolstered by Ant’s smoky beat.
On “Fortunate,” we get a glimpse into the paranoia that comes with trying to deal with life’s pleasantries. “I highly doubt that y’all think about sex / Anywhere near as often as I think about death,” Slug raps. The theme of the record is not wanting to overstay one’s welcome on this earth. However, with that desire comes the sadness of a father and husband: “I don’t wanna leave my family tree behind / I don’t anyone to miss me like I miss you.” There is a sense here of Slug wanting to get out before things inevitably go bad. If things have soured in your life previously, it’s only natural to be fearful of the pin dropping on the good times.
It would not be an Atmosphere album without a story record with a twist. On “My Lady Got Two Men,” Slug details a girlfriend who is also seeing another man. Over the Hawaiian beat, our hero tries to convince his lady to side with him. Ultimately, we realize that both the “funk” and the “comfort” are two sides of the same person: “My lady got two lovers / One for the funk and the other for the comfort / I’m trying to understand / But I gotta figure out that I’m both of them.” The record is reminiscent of “Yesterday” off their 2008 Lemons album in terms of an ending that Slug decides to decode for us.
However, for all the highlights of Southsiders, there are missteps. “The World Might Not Live Through the Night” and “Star Shaped Heart” are noticeably lacking in punch when it comes to both Ant’s production and Slug’s delivery. Slug sounds bored throughout both records and we get the sense of him simply going through the motions without much to say.
The album picks back up, though, with its crowned jewel in the form of “Flicker,” a tribute to the late Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen, a friend of Atmosphere who passed away in 2010. The somber cut pays tribute to the MC, while also examining the difficulties of trying to pen a great record for another great lyricist: “But I’m starting to think if you were here right now / You’d ridicule these lyrics, you’d hate this chorus / You’d probably tell me that the concept is too straight forward.” Regardless of the doubts, the record a heartfelt tribute and brings sincerity and unmasked emotion to the album.
While Southsiders may not match up to rawer, angrier installments in their catalog for the fans, it’s an honest look at where Atmosphere is now both musically and mentally. There is newfound maturity on the album, but the production has been scaled back to their earlier roots. One misstep of Family Sign was that it had the feel of an indie band instead a rap group. Here, Slug and Ant let the listeners know that, while they’re older, the hip-hop roots are still very much intact. And though things may be nicer and more comfortable than ever for Slug, the line between hope and fear seems omnipresent.