Beats & Rhymes: Atmosphere’s The Family Sign

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

AtmosphereAtmosphere: The Family Sign: The Family Sign (Rhymesayers, 4/12/11)

Atmosphere: “Just for Show”

[audio:|titles=Atmosphere: “Just for Show”]

The land of independent hip hop is a dangerous, inconstant place. Giants like Rawkus Records and Definitive Jux, once considered among the most vital sources of hip-hop innovation, have collapsed into footnotes. But Minnesota-based Rhymesayers Entertainment has managed to hold its place in the world of underground rap for more than 15 years, thanks in part to founders Slug and Ant’s flagship duo, Atmosphere.

Atmosphere’s previous album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, broke into the Billboard top 10 — an impressive achievement for an underground hip-hop group, and, as a result, Atmosphere represents to the general public what underground hip hop is. Its latest album, The Family Sign, typifies all of the strengths and weaknesses of indie rap, but it’s unusual and accessible enough to be easily enjoyed. If the genre must have a face, it could do much worse than Atmosphere.

Ant’s usual synthesizer-heavy beats are nowhere to be found here, as he instead recruits guitarist Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson to provide live instrumentation over his arrangements.  On uptempo songs like “Just For Show,” the two musicians prove to be admirably funky, like a pared-down Roots.

Elsewhere, their restrained, subtle playing avoids stuffing up the tracks, lending negative sonic space that gives the songs an intimate feeling that’s rarely encountered in rap. Collis’ acoustic work in “Who I’ll Never Be” is an intricate wonder that’s reminiscent of some of Led Zeppelin’s more low-key numbers, and the spidery, quiet-to-loud line on “Something So” recalls the post rock of Mogwai and its ilk.  Ant’s songwriting shines throughout, crafting tracks that sound alien to the rap genre save for their propulsive beats.

Slug’s flow, however, can be choppy. He tends to rely solely on end rhymes, and one stretch on “Became” finds him ending four consecutive lines with either “you” or “ya.” His lyrics occasionally eschew subtlety for excessive explanation; on the same song, he raps, “Your footprints grew further apart / I knew what that meant, and it was hurting my heart,” before immediately following it with “It meant you started to run.”

But aside from these minor miscues, Slug’s lyrical presence on the record is a welcome one. As the title suggests, The Family Sign is dominated by themes of family, connection, and interpersonal relationships, and Slug’s vaunted storytelling abilities come through in spades.

“If You Can Save Me Now” weaves a harrowing story of a man caught in a car crash, comforted by the memories of his girlfriend. “The Last To Say” is a son’s lament for his abused mother’s wasted life, featuring haunting lines such as “In fact, the biggest beating was the day that he died / ’cause now it’s too late for her to make a new life.” “Bad Bad Daddy” takes a comedic lens to the family theme. In a tale as disturbing as it is hilarious, Slug rhymes from the point of view of a negligent father who takes his nine children to the bar to celebrate his wife’s latest pregnancy.

The album reaches its most personal note on “Something So,” Slug’s ode to his two children. His story is surprisingly emotional, with insecurity, excitement, and love proudly on display. “Thank you for the branch you grew on this tree,” he says, later acknowledging his children’s births as the only two times in his life that he’s “stood in some sunshine.”

Honest, emotional subject matter, coupled with Ant and company’s evolving sound, signal a more mature Atmosphere. It appears as though Slug’s role as a father has eroded the selfishness that so many rappers share, and it has helped him to turn his eye onto more universal issues. It’s a welcome change, and one that makes The Family Sign a worthwhile listen.

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