In the youth-driven world of rap music, the word "mature" can seem like a backhanded compliment. Hitting No. 2 on the Billboard rap charts on its first week of release and No.13 overall, Atmosphere's sixth album, The Family Sign, was released last month to a bevy of reviews that trotted out the M word, a tag that the group's frontman Slug seemed hesitant to self-apply during our interview.
Slug and producer Ant have been at the forefront of the independent rap world for some time, but even after many years of success and accolades, the group's song-writing process has not actually changed drastically. "We've always just been trying to do our version of Gang Starr," says Slug, talking not only about the late Guru and DJ Premier's tight collaborative energy, but also their integrity as writers. "I'm not going to make God Loves Ugly over and over again. That was written at a certain place and time, and this [new album] is coming from where we are now," the 38-year-old rapper reflects.
Before releasing the new studio album, Atmosphere put out a pair of EPs (2010's To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy) that hinted at the group's new creative direction. Slug compares this musical maturation to the growth of a child, whose developmental leaps may seem jarring if you see them only on occasion but natural if you maintain a closer connection; the stylistic jumps between albums feel less startling when you're familiar with the steps in between.
The Family Sign's cover art features Slug's baby son making the hand symbol that served as inspiration for the title, but the songs are about relationships that extend beyond blood, and are not always uplifting. Slug says that he hasn't been feeling terribly light-hearted, partially due to the early passing of one of his dearest friends, and the album reflects this. Levity and bravado are largely absent here, and as Slug has moved further away from needing to establish himself as a rapper, he's progressed toward more storytelling work and emotional portraits as opposed to his early shit-talking. Much of the material is dark, both lyrically and musically, and the beats have become less sample-driven and more spare. Lead single "She's Enough," a joyous celebration of monogamy, is contrasted with a song like "The Last to Say," a raw depiction of domestic abuse set to sparse guitar and piano from new band members Nate Collis and Erick Anderson. Many of the songs on The Family Sign deal with personal relationships in a way that seems deeply intimate, but the attempt is more to invoke a particular feeling than be strictly realist.
Often mistakenly thought of as an autobiographical rapper ("I think I've only written like five actual autobiographical songs in my whole career," he says), Slug writes lyrics that are always authentic to the rapper's experience but are expressed in different ways depending on what works for the song. However Slug chooses to portray his ideas, be it through characters, metaphors, or colorfully described situations, the songs reflect concepts and experiences that are very real but are often masked behind fictional detail. The songs' lyrics can utilize vague allusions and strong specificity in equal measure, and this album contains some of his best and most considered writing. Slug finds it easier to implant his vulnerable and difficult subject matter into songs like "Became," which on the surface is about a werewolf encounter on a camping trip, but underneath is "one of the most true-to-life songs on the whole album."
Having just wrapped up the first leg of the Family Tour, as well as the Welcome to Minnesota mini-tour that hit smaller cities around the state, Atmosphere are gearing up to once again headline Soundset, this weekend's gigantic hip-hop festival at Canterbury Park. Thrown by Rhymesayers, the annual rap extravaganza will bring heavyweights like Big Boi of Outkast and De La Soul onto the label's turf. Atmosphere are able to sit alongside these legendary figures because they've crafted a sound that is meant to grow and built a fanbase that respects that growth.
In The Family Sign's promotional videos, the members of Atmosphere are involved in a series of group therapy sessions, wherein therapist Ralph Borka asks Slug what he thinks he'll be rapping about at age 80. After jokingly freestyling as a geriatric for a few bars ("I'm the type that still gets excited even rockin' with the diapers/Get the single, it's called 'Mad Wrinkles'"), Slug comes to the conclusion that he would probably continue to approach his material with the same mentality as he does now. The road that Atmosphere have built for themselves makes such an extended career seem entirely plausible.
SOUNDSET takes place SUNDAY, MAY 29, at CANTERBURY PARK; 866.468.3401. For more on the acts playing the festival, visit gimmenoiseblog.com.