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Slug, the MC for one of hip hop’s longest running and consistently interesting groups, has switched his style up. On Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, he became a third person storyteller. Previously, he’d given us some of the most personal, raw and vivid lyrical content of anyone who has ever picked up a mic, but he turned his eye toward the struggles of other people and away from his own personal demons (with alcohol, women, family, etc.).  It’s always good to see an artist evolve, but the new narrative technique seemed to open itself up to some songs that had a saccharine, sing-songy, inspirational, day-in-the-life of the average joe quality.  It wasn’t all bad.  In fact, some of it was pretty good.  But the song “You,” for instance, left a particularly bad taste in the mouth.
On To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP’s, we get a little bit of the old Slug and some of the new, and it works both for and against this latest release.  On “Americareful,” he brilliantly breaks down the plight of a girl who has gotten accidentally knocked up:

“Katie went and got a baby in her stomach/She didn’t mean to, she was only fuckin’/It ain’t like she isn’t old enough to cut it as a mother/Doesn’t matter though it’s not in the budget/Now she’s gotta make a visit to the clinic/She can’t remember ever feeing this timid/She’s gonna front, and act like it isn’t hard/Vacuum boom put it on a debit card/Sitting in the waiting room, it’s a full house/A lot of presidents that didn’t pull their troops out/If you’re gonna special op with the bad boys/Goin’ in unprotected is a bad choice/It’s your decision to correct a poor decision/Alert the stork to stop, abort the mission/Forced in a more horrible position/When the doc got shot on the way into the building.”

It’s this combination of wordplay and the ability to reference cultural, political and economic themes all at once that put Slug in a league of his own.

There is more vivid storytelling on “The Major Leagues,” a story of neighborhood drug dealers who never quite made it: “Here we are two decades later/I’m curious to see what the Kingpin’s day’s made of/You never got to be Scarface/Caught between a rock and a hard place…Maybe he got something to say to me/I have to patiently wait and see/Hoping that heaven has a vacancy for dope fiends/ Cause I know he never made it to the major leagues.”

And then on the very next song, “Scalp,” Slug puts himself in the role of runner for the local dealer.  He takes you inside a dive bar on a wintery night and you can feel the desperation of the situation, as he nervously agrees to pick up a package for the dealer and then meets an unexpected fate on his way to get it.

The beats from producer Ant on these songs have a dark, ominous quality.  The same goes for the more battle-oriented “Until the Nipple’s Gone,” “Shotgun,” and “Commodities.”

Other portions of the album, though, take on a decidedly different tone.  “The Best Day” is an example of the day-in-the-life inspirational style mentioned above, sticking to the old When Life Gives You Lemons… mantra. It’s an up-tempo, piano-happy track about a guy with a bad job, a kid who gets picked on at school and a worn out mother, with a half-sung hook that goes, “Every day can’t be the best day/Do what you can right now, don’t hesitate/That’s why we try to make love and get paid/Take the bad with the good, now let’s play.”

There’s more of this variety on To All My Friends.  “Freefallin’” is very similarly themed.  Your job sucks, your relationship is on the rocks, but “We often gotta look for the path/These problems are the good ones to have.” Again, appreciate what you have.

“To All My Friends” and “The Number None” are wistful takes on realizing the dream of becoming an MC and young love, respectively.  They’re not poorly done for what they are, but there’s just a softness and a sentimentality here that’s a turn-off.

It’s kind of interesting, looking back at the trajectory of Atmosphere’s discography, the last time they put together one of the collections of EPs it was Lucy Ford some ten years ago, which veered back and forth between sheer brilliance and stuff that was maybe a little out there for some people. To All My Friends, shifts between moments of sheer brilliance and otherwise.

Still, with all that said, To All My Friends, like all of Atmosphere’s releases, packs something that’s hard to come by: substance.  They give you something to chew on.  It’s not disposable music.  This new incarnation finds Slug a little more optimistic and less cynical (perhaps to a fault), but on songs like “The Loser Wins” he shows his lyrical sword is as sharp as ever: “You know you fucked up, right?/Bye bye, wish you luck with life…I won’t trust you again/Getting better at choosing friends/This time the loser wins/Cause I learned how to cut off the looser ends.”

  Mixtape D.L.
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