I didn’t find Atmosphere until I was in college and I was immediately attracted to Slug as a writer who could narrate blue collar fables with such clever prose. At a time when hip-hop was flooded with self-involved lyrics, describing false tales of wealth and violence, Slug was writing songs about drug abuse, bad relationships, battling feelings of social isolation, and genuine violence in the form of mental abuse, self-loathing, and alcohol-induced car accidents. The authenticity laced into their music echoed in my reality. If I wasn’t wrestling with similar issues myself, I knew someone who was. Slug said more with three words, than most could say in their entire catalogue: “God loves ugly.” It’s a powerful sentiment, worthy of reflection.
Southsiders is the eighth studio album for Atmosphere. Although, recently, the band has experimented with adding musicians on stage, and in recording studio, this album has the feeling of getting back to basics. Not that their experiments weren’t successful. Their 2008 release, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is their most commercially successful album to date, and featured six additional band members, including Nate Collis on guitar and Erick Anderson on keyboards. But the chemistry between Slug and Ant is so potent, that the inclusion of anyone else can make the concoction seem diluted. I guess, I never really felt like the additional members were part of the band, but rather some modular strap on, designed to add depth where depth already existed. Southsiders returns to the dynamic duo mentality, which put Atmosphere on the map in the first place. Even the name references the south side of Minneapolis, where the group got their start. The city, which has spawned a thousand verses in their work, also makes an auditory mark on this album with Ant splicing familiar cityscape sounds into tracks, such as the Metro Blue Line announcement for the Lake St. / Midtown station at the beginning of “January on Lake Street”. The tone of the album feels like a return to a classic era in some ways, but lyrically it resides in the ever-uncertain present tense.
Slug (nee Sean Daley) is a storyteller, he always has been. One of his most endearing traits is that he fills his pen with honest, raw emotion, and then releases that ink upon the page in such a way that it seeps into your skin. You feel those could be your words. You’ve had those thoughts before. You’ve been pissed off by the same irrelevant shit he’s talking about. It’s like he’s narrating a two sided mirror; pouring his heart into the glass, but all you can see is yourself looking back. Southsiders is just that. It’s a collection of stories, fables, scripture, and the occasional article from the Enquirer. Anyone familiar with Atmosphere’s past work will know that the stories are rarely Disney fairytales, but rather the Grimm essence or gritty reboots. In Slug’s tales, Snow White is a drug-addicted prostitute, and the seven dwarves are sex-slave traders with hearts of gold. Although he doesn’t mince words about the tainted reality we all face, one of his constant sermons is to be thankful for what we do have, and appreciate this troublesome little life we’re given.
Slug’s self-therapeutic writing style means that his lyrics are constantly evolving with time. In Southsiders, he explores his tumultuous relationships, the shifting priorities of age, death and what death leaves behind for the living. “Flicker” deals with the passing of his longtime friend, and fellow writer, Michael “Eyedea” Larsen, in 2010 and the bout he had with the bottle following it. “Kanye West” gets into the courtship of his wife and being so passionate about something, that it can come off as arrogance. In interviews, Slug has said that in his vernacular ‘Kanye West’ is a euphemism for loving something so much, that you no longer care what people perceive of that love. If you’re going to be ardent about it, have fiery outbursts about it.
Ant (nee Anthony Davis) paints the background for Slug’s stories. A DJ/producer with an keen understanding of psychology, he can manipulate the mood of the listener. He blends so seamlessly with Slug’s rhetoric, that he can almost seem invisible. Never one to ask for recognition, or scream into the mic, Ant is often the overlooked half of the duo. Even at live shows he rarely says much. But after 25 years of making music together, he lets his beats talk for him. His aural landscapes are painted with bass, rhythm and haunting background vocals.
I can’t think of another hip-hop DJ / producer who has a bigger bag of tricks. Similar to their album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, pianos make spooky appearances. My favorite occurrence being the laid back melody for the song “Hell” (a song about the hedonistic good times of the past, which you have no desire to relive again). The chorus to “Mrs. Interpret” mixes a beautiful woman’s voice sung in French. When translated, she’s singing, “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I need you, you.” The lyrics fit so perfectly into a song where Slug is describing a lack of understanding with this woman’s words, along with a long history of not understanding women, period. These shrewd little nuances of style put Ant in a league of his own.
Southsiders tamed any foreboding I had prior to listening to it. It’s an album which fits well into atmosphere’s body of work as a whole, and yet distinctly stands out as having its own flavor. If I had any criticism, it would be that the subject matter is overwhelmingly heavy. Although far from atypical for Atmosphere, I feel like a little more balance was needed. The song “Idiot” tries to lighten the mood a bit, with a chorus that playfully proclaims, “Whoever taught you how to speak your mind, never knew you’d turn out to be an idiot.” The lyrics will bring a smile to your face, but still remind you of the constant parade of stupidity you face on a daily basis. I also wish they would have picked up the tempo on a couple songs. I appreciate when Slug pushes his style into a faster setting, and shows off his creativity at a quicker pace.
Author’s Post Script: The album is being sold as a “standard” version, with 15 tracks, and a deluxe version, which includes five more bonus tracks. I highly suggest the deluxe version, as the bonus tracks were some of my favorites.
01 : Camera Thief
02 : Arthur’s Song
03 : The World Might Not Live Through The Night
04 : Star Shaped Heart
05 : I Love You Like A Brother
06 : Southsiders
07 : Bitter
08 : Mrs. Interpret
09 : Fortunate
10 : Kanye West
11 : We Ain’t Gonna Die Today
12 : My Lady Got Two Men
13 : Flicker
14 : January On Lake Street
15 : Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now
16 : She Don’t Know Why She Love It (Bonus Track)
17 : Hell (Bonus Track)
18 : I Don’t Need No Fancy Shit (Bonus Track)
19 : Idiot (Bonus Track)
20 : Prelude to Hell (Bonus Track)