By Natalya Jones
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The sensitive MC has always been a rare figure in hip-hop. Although the early 2000s did see a spike in "politically conscious" backpack rappers like Talib Kweli and Mos Def (both of whom took a page from Common's socio-empathetic rhyme book), it's been 99 percent bitches, guns, money, and so on for quite some time.
Even rap's alleged new school of swag — represented by the postmodern lyrical drooling of Lil B and Odd Future's eclectically produced, hydra-headed juvie-crime psychosis — still insists on acting like a bunch of tough guys.
Over the last few cycles of extreme bravado in hip-hop, MC Slug, producer Ant, and their assorted Atmosphere affiliates have been the pillars of hip-hop's most navel-gazingly emotional quadrants. And September 16, the Fillmore in South Beach gets a break from iced-out G's and thuggish-ruggish playboys to spend some time with hip-hop's most sensitive. That's not to say the duo hasn't maintained a certain degree of rap's hypermasculine, often sexist energy. It's just that the intensity of the MC's lens (usually projected onto hyperbolic accounts of achievement) is instead projected inward, producing something like The Slim Shady LP-era Eminem with violent fantasies subbed out for an extra dose of Dashboard Confessional-style self-obsession and/or loathing.
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The result is entire albums spent languishing over ex-girlfriends — Marshall Mathers had Kim; Slug has Lucy — and mulling over the winding worries wandering through the rapper's delicate psyche. Hardest-of-the-hard MCs like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac gave glimpses of the grandiose psychological turmoil that comes with being a boss. But Atmosphere's Slug and Ant explore the psychological turmoil of humdrum everyday existence and real-life problems. The group's early output — including breakout LP God Loves Ugly — through 2003's Seven's Travels developed the emo-rap blueprint that became a rarely duplicated signature sound.
But despite pioneering a microgenre, the Atmosphere dudes have not rested on their moody laurels, no matter how awkward their creative expansion may ultimately be. And their 2008 LP — appropriately (though melodramatically) titled When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold — saw the group beginning to incorporate a Roots-style live-band setup that's also been employed on their most recent album, The Family Sign.
Though less funk- and R&B-derived than the boom-bap rhythm of the Roots' live instrumentals, the Atmosphere Family Band — which includes slinky guitarist Nate Collis and atmospheric keyboardist Erick Anderson — has endowed Slug's ennui-laden raps with an organic warmth sometimes lost in the world of icy hip-hop production. Besides, big beats and cop sirens wouldn't really make sense backing up songs about being sad.
The Family Sign is full-on Atmosphere-gone-analog. Lead single "The Last to Say" features nary a beat. But there are plenty of moments featuring Slug's straight-up crooning. And as evident in the MC's brave (though not entirely successful) serenades, the album also demonstrates an expansion of Atmosphere's subject matter. Beyond breakups and existential self-doubt, The Family Sign is a concept album detailing the decline of the family unit.
On this new record, Atmosphere's sound has gone further out to sea than ever before, with "The Last to Say" somehow eerily recalling the much more digital emo moment Kanye West had a few years ago. In both instances, it's easy to appreciate the sincerity. But it also makes the listener a little uncomfortable. Yet maybe that's another selling point for Atmosphere.
There's always something to be said for emotional catharsis. And if you also happen to enjoy rap music, Atmosphere just might be your ticket.