Atmosphere has been evolving over the last few years. The group’s recent work (When Life Give You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold and To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy), has taken the raw, personal and often bizarre nature of their earlier material and turned it into something more reflective, mature and in its weaker moments, corny. Slug’s virtuoso storytelling became more distant, with a tendency to veer into the earnest motivational anthem.
The Family Sign hones this recent evolution into one of their more complete albums to date. A mixture of personal reflection (old friends, old loves, familial relations, mistakes made, hopes for the future) and a haunting, blues-tinged sound render the group’s last couple efforts obsolete.
A huge addition to The Family Sign are the contributions from Nate “The Guitar Man” Collis (on guitar) and Erick Anderson (on the keys), both of whom have toured with Atmosphere over the years.
Collis’ rich guitar sound winds its way through songs like “Millennium Dodo,” with Slug making his way through the night (“All around the world, it’s the same bar/Wishing that the jukebox had some Gang Starr/State to state I chase fate/But my stereo ate all my favorite tapes/So baby girl, you better straighten up the attitude/Or you ain’t gonna make it all the way to Baton Rouge”).
On “Something So,” Slug does some very light crooning over a lush, airy guitar, singing, “They tell me that/I’m not qualified/To lend my voice/To something so beautiful.” He has a point. This is beautiful music. It’s definitely not hardcore hip-hop, but it’s an exhibition of the genre’s range.
Anderson’s keys, meanwhile, standout to great effect on “If You Can Save Me Now” and “My Notes.” On the former, Slug remembers being born, narrating seemingly from the womb: “I hear voices, footsteps/A cop’s radio off to the left/The noise made me reflect/Somewhere along the way I must of caught my breath/Drifting, dreaming/And then I heard somebody screaming.”
“Bad Bad Daddy” is a nice bit of comic relief as Slug demonstrates some questionable parenting skills (“I’m gonna go get bombed/You better not tell your mom”).
On an “Ain’t Nobody,” we’re treated to one more in a deep catalog of Atmosphere songs about leaving your loser friends behind with the great refrain: “Yeah, I came to party, but I don’t wanna party with you.”
Of course, the same theme plays itself out on the very next track, “Your Name Here,” which illustrates the weakness of The Family Sign. Slug and Atmosphere sometimes fall back on the usual suspects. “The Last to Say” is a bit of a heavy-handed cautionary tale against being caught up in an abusive relationship—why does hip-hop always put the onus on the woman in these situations?
But it’s the sonic achievement of producer Ant, along with Collis and Anderson, that make this such a strong record overall—a real album with texture and mood, not just a collection of songs. Slug, meanwhile, balances the abstract with the specific in a way few, if any, MCs are capable of. The Family Sign is Atmosphere finding the right balance—both elegiac and hopeful.
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