BEST ALBUM OF THE PAST 12 MONTHS - 2004
Every year readers pick Atmosphere as the best hip-hop group in the Twin Cities, and every year we point that readership to another act they should notice as well (see "Best Hip-Hop Artist, p. 154). Atmosphere are by now such a self-sustaining cultural phenomenon that the crew--rapper/guiding personality Slug, producer Ant, concert DJ Mr. Dibbs, and other friends--needs a boost from City Pages about as badly as George W. Bush needs our endorsement for president. Yet despite a fan base that sells out First Avenue-sized venues across the country, extends to viewers of MTV2 and The Jimmy Kimmel Show, and reaches into the offices of every major music publication, Atmosphere gets surprisingly slept on critically. It's as if no mainstream rock journalist who appreciates Slug's talent quite trusts her ears to know that this very weird, truly unusual, and intensely personal music is great even by the standards we apply across decades and state lines. Atmosphere's rap is difficult: It has always been difficult, even before the first album, in the mid-'90s, when Slug was calling himself Urban Atmosphere. Ant's disinfected beats are elusive in their funk, more hypnotic than floor-filling, and Slug's way of engaging listeners requires both an attention span and your indulgence. In order to care about what he says, you really have to care about him. But trust your heart. When Slug pays tribute to his hometown on the hidden track of Seven's Travels (his third or sixth album, depending on how you count), he's doing something more moving than using hip-hop conventions of call and response cleverly, or subverting them for the home team. When he raps, "If you know this is where you want to raise your kids, say Shhh," he's tapping a nerve that Common left untouched before skipping out of Chicago for Brooklyn. Slug feels the gut-level pride that Run-DMC once felt so monumentally for their neighborhood, their sneakers, their choice of fast food--but Slug feels it for a life he actually has, not one he imagines, or one he feels he should have, being a rapper and all. Prince used Minneapolis as fodder for his idealized fantasies, paying tribute to an "Uptown" that existed only in his mind; Slug looks outward, thinking about what the place will look like in 20 years. "If you're from the Midwest and it doesn't matter where, say Shhh," he continues, making a subtle joke about identity at the expense of Midwesterners, then adding, "If you can drink the tap water and breathe the air, say Shhh," making a joke at the expense of everyone else. Basically, he's telling the world, I'll come to you, but you also have to come to me, in every sense. That's something more radical than Midwesterners like Nelly or Eminem could have come up with, and we trust the audience knows it.