My experience with underground hip-hop is limited. I overplayed MF Doom in 2003, enjoyed Sage Francis a little too much in 2004 and, like nearly all white, male pop culture writers of a certain age, had Killer Mike/El-P Run The Jewels LP on my best of 2013 list. I’m familiar with the artists I NEED TO KNOW but not many others. One of the artists you kinda/sorta have to know if you have any interest in modern music is Atmosphere.
I own multiple Atmosphere albums. I have not played an Atmosphere album, front to back, since 2006. I do not skip tracks that come up on shuffle but they aren’t a group I think about putting on at any time. Their new album, Southsiders, is fantastic. After reading the Rec Room Therapy that discussed the track “Kanye West,” I decided to take advantage of the Internet Age and listen to an Atmosphere album via Spotify, front to back.
Track 1, “Camera Theif,” gently brings the listener in. It’s a great way to bring in someone like me. But is it good?
Title track “Southsiders” sounds like it could have been made in 1992 and that’s a very good thing. But is it good?
The song “Flicker” has a harpsichord and since I am a white, male pop culture writer of a certain age I love The Smashing Pumpkins, I love this song. It’s a touching yet not tearful song about the end of a life. But is it good?
Am I enjoying Southsiders because I don’t know enough about underground (Is a Rhymesayers release still underground?) hip-hop or is it actually good? Hip-hop writer Marcus Dowling might know the answer.
Well, Brandon, of course it’s great. Atmosphere’s Southsiders may actually be one of the best albums of 2014.
There’s this schism in rap wherein a group of artists who are all over the age of 40 (a group that includes recently releasing an album rap band The Roots) but not of the southern rap tradition have mailed it in and decided to pretty much leave contemporary rap alone. Thus, their songs (and their production) sound like something more in line with an era in which these artists were hip and cool – typically the early 1990s. I’m 36, so I know you’re pretty much in my age bracket. As well, I know you like MF Doom (age 41) and Sage Francis (age 37), both artists whose histories in rap pre-date indie/underground popularity before the early 2000s Southern pop-rap (Nelly, TI, Ludacris) takeover.
The key here is substance, of which there is a significant amount on this album. The bonus version is 20 tracks long, and the production of course errs towards things like thick drumlines and unique instrumental melodies. Atmosphere is a duo and for what Slug can’t do by spitting speeches and stories instead of punchlines and ad-libs, Ant does as a producer driven by a desire to sample dusty soul and funk records like his fellow “over-the-hill gang” members have done for the past 25 years. This isn’t the space of DJ Mustard producing for YG or Mike WILL producing for Miley Cyrus, it’s a grown ass old rap head producing for another grown ass old rap head, and nary a pop movement is being chased. This is a rap album for rap people, not a pop album for pop people, and we should love it.
There aren’t “radio ready singles” here. There was once a time in music wherein rap was the “top 40 radio disruptor,” and labels had to insist that rap do everything but sound like traditional rap in order to cross over (MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Young MC and Tone Loc please stand up). There was still a fear of angry black people (and their white friends) and their angry black music storming into the scene. Somewhere along the way, mainstream America decided to be less afraid of black people (maybe also black people just got less “scary” and politicized as a people, too) and rap music found a home. That being said, if Southsiders is the best of the classic theory of what made rap great, Slug discussing marriage, maturity and accepting responsibility on tracks like “Kanye West,” “Camera Thief,” hell, every song on here, is pretty amazing. Brandon, if you’re like me and you listen to pop radio on occasion and hear Kanye West and Jay Z talk about wealth and advanced notions of “kinky” sexual practices 18 times an hour, this album would be pretty amazing, too.
We’ve hit a split in rap where old rappers (and old rap fans, too) may be getting weary of being rappers in hip-hop culture. The Roots’ new album is about them leaving rap alone in hip-hop, and instead evolving into being a band who plays music on TV – but still very much of the culture. Slug and Ant though aren’t as lucky as Questlove, Black Thought and Friends, so they’re still rapping along, moving further and further away from where rap is in the mainstream and trying to settle into a new place in the hip-hop cultural atmosphere, where the classic rules still apply.
This is a fascinating album that’s representative of a fascinating era and is both absolutely great and worth a listen, too.