Of all the artists readers have suggested to me for inclusion on this blog, the Minneapolis-based underground duo Atmosphere are certainly one of them. You two are probably calculating in your heads right now just how many times you requested that I cover (x) and how upset you've been that I've gone in (y)'s direction instead, but you should look at today's post in a positive manner: I'm trying to follow your suggestions. Some of your ideas are harder for me to come by than others, but let's see where this goes.
Today, Atmosphere is primarily made up of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and producer Ant (Anthony Davis, refusing to stretch even a little bit to come up with a nickname), but you'll notice that there are three other names listed on the album cover of their debut album, Overcast!, released on Rhymesayers Entertainment, a record label co-founded by both of our hosts with their friends Beyond and Siddiq. Beyond, who goes by many other names currently, including Musab and Sab The Artist, was never actually a part of the group, but he was down with Slug and Ant, and even managed to release the very first album on Rhymesayers, Comparison, in 1996. Stress (another alias for Siddiq, born Brent Sayers) was an actual part of Atmosphere for a short time, although he doesn't really factor on Overcast!. This leaves the lone extra name on the cover, Spawn (Derek Turner), who was actually the Phife Dawg to Slug's Q-Tip for the duration of Overcast! (maybe that's a bad metaphor to come up with, since Spawn has a lot more screen time than Phife did on most of A Tribe Called Quest's efforts); he left the group shortly after their debut hit store shelves, leaving Atmosphere whittled down to the duo they are best known as today.
Overcast! is best known as the project that put Atmosphere on the hip hop map, but it wasn't until the group chose a handful of the album's tracks (and one exclusive b-side, "God's Bathroom Floor") for an EP, conveniently titled Overcast! EP, that college radio came a-calling. The combination of both projects, both of which saw release in 1997, established Atmosphere as underground favorites and Slug in particular as one of the better emo rappers out there, in that he wasn't afraid of actually getting emotional while behind the mic (by that logic, Ghostface Killah should be considered the most successful emo rapper in fucking history, but nobody will ever cop to actually labeling him as such). Ant's production resided in a territory where mood swings and dramatic tension played outside with whimsy and intellect, with boom-bap occasionally coming to visit from out of town.
These days, Slug and Ant are singing the praises of a mildly successful career in the underground (at least one of their albums has even managed to chart fairly high on the Billboard charts, and I'm not even talking about the Heatseekers one), and their salivating fans await the release of each and every one of their projects, whether it's a new album, a leaked track, or compilations of early Ant and Slug recordings where they fucked around with their friends (see: the HeadShots mixtape series). They've done so well for themselves that it's fairly easy to discount Spawn's contributions to Overcast!: for the record, I seem to remember the man carrying himself well, and it's interesting to ponder just where the group could have gone as a trio, had Derek not quit rapping in 1997 to start a family in Texas.
Although it isn't labeled as such, “1597” is essentially a rap album intro, setting Slug and Spawn up as your hosts for the next hour or so on a tour of the Minneapolis underground, which sounds about the same as the hip hop scene in nearly every other city on the map. (I guess that says a lot about the universal language of our chosen genre.) Ant's Beethoven-sampling instrumental gives the project an immediate classical feel, and although Slug doesn't exactly sound like he interrupted a symphony program to deliver his lines, he still comes across as credible enough. Spawn's verse pissed me off, though, thanks to Ant's curious need to start the song's fade-out during his performance (a known pet peeve of mine), doing so with more than twenty seconds left on the clock, which makes actually listening to “1597” an exercise in futility, because you'll never know how it actually ends.
2. BRIEF DESCRIPTION
Slug tackles Ant's hard-as-fuck drums all by himself, inadvertently setting up the audience for the future of Atmosphere in the process. Sean's one-verse wonder is much longer than this sort of thing tends to be, but he maintains the energy of the track while describing his need to elevate beyond his current lot in life in a manner that is all but brief. This shit was pretty fucking entertaining: unsurprisingly, “Brief Description” also appeared on the Overcast! EP. Slug's nimble verbal acrobatics are almost the textbook definition of what people expect underground hip hop to sound like, but while his words don't necessarily stick to the collective audience subconscious, he still sounds pretty good.
3. CURRENT STATUS (FEAT. BEYOND)
This was dope as fuck. Ant's moody boom bap underscores the chemistry between Slug and his old friend Beyond, both of whom ride the beat as if on a quiet Sunday drive in the country, without a care in the world. Once the instrumental, which for some reason gave me the same unnerving chill of being locked inside of a haunted submarine, not unlike the video for “Ready Or Not” from the Fugees (minus the ghosts, obviously), kicked in, I just knew that the song was going to be a good one, and I'm willing to bet that newcomers to the Atmosphere party will feel the same way. The hook is ass, but just what were you expecting from a rap song, anyway?
Interactions with the opposite sex have spurred quite possibly millions of songs, both hip hop and otherwise (there is nothing quite as heartbreaking as hearing a sonnet as performed with an accordion in the midst of a polka breakdown): since one of the things Atmosphere is known for is their raw honesty of emotion when it comes to relationships, it's no surprise that their first hat tossed into that particular ring appeared on their debut full-length project. Spawn picks up all three verses, exploring a complicated (hence the title) courtship with a woman that he never gets to close the deal with, even though his own description of his interactions with her would seem to naturally suggest otherwise. Other than Cannibal Ox's “The F Word”, there aren't many odes to the platonic friend in hip hop, so this was pretty interesting to hear, if a bit long.
5. 4:30 AM
After the depressing “Complications”, it makes sense that Ant and Slug would want to lift the audience's spirits by inserting an assertion of hip hop dominance onto Overcast!: indeed, Slug even mentions including rival emcees on a sandwich also consisting of cheese and lunchmeat, which would make for one incredibly awkward meal, unless we're talking about using a sturdy sub roll or something. Slug is convincing enough behind the mic, but he diffuses his own argument with the annoying-as-shit one-line-used-as-the-hook gimmick: if I'm actively thinking about what's going on when I'm awake at 4:30 AM, then I must not be enjoying myself in any way. Aside from the asinine chorus, this was merely okay.
6. ADJUST (FEAT. BEYOND)
Most people could see a benefit in adjusting something in their lives: even the most minute amount of tweaking could result in a significant change. Flapping butterfly wings in China causing a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean-type of shit. One adjustment I would have appreciated is if Slug and Ant had simply erased the masters for this boring-as-fuck track that aims nowhere and somehow manages to drag you down with it. Everyone should just skip ahead to the next track already.
Truly it's a criticism that could be applied to nearly every single rapper in existence, but Overcast! is proving that Slug hasn't yet gotten a grasp on how to write a good chorus: the one present on here sounds as though it would be a better fit for his college thesis or as a line in some bad high school poetry. Luckily, Sean is self-aware and doesn't care if I like him or not. For the record, he isn't bad behind the mic, even though this sounds more like a three-part disjointed freestyle session rather than an actual song. Ant's instrumental is interestingly quirky, but not dark enough to match the attempted intensity of Slug's chorus. Oh well.
This DJ Shadow-esque instrumental track sounds like a lot of the stuff I listened to during my brief stint as a guest judge for the short-lived I Hook A Beat Up project way back when. So to those folks who submitted tracks: congratulations, your stuff sounded about as good as Ant's production work, if not a bit better. Which is a compliment. Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard back then sounded really good: I wonder if any of those guys moved on to bigger and better things.
9. SOUND IS VIBRATION
This track, which also appears on the Overcast! EP, finds Slug and Spawn trading bars with an ineffective back-and-forth that makes you wonder just what Atmosphere's career trajectory would have been, had Spawn stayed with the group. Ant successfully keeps the song feeling loose up until the end, when the simple instrumental is overpowered by Slug and Spawn chanting, each taking up their own speaker, over the end of the track. A tactic that turns sour rather quickly. A shame, that: the song was decent enough up to that point.
Smartly diffuses any potential criticism by having the rappers point out that “real heads are the real music critics” (emphasis mine). It's awfully hard to imagine anybody ever listening to Overcast! that isn't a hip hop head, though: it's not as though Atmosphere live on the pop charts and are easily accessible for a casual listen. So from one real hip hop head to the two others still reading this, let me just advise you that maybe “Multiples” isn't the best song to trot out when you're discussing the realness of your rhymes, as it cannot be classified as what people in the business call “good music”. In fact, it kind of sucks. I'm just saying.
My understanding is that “Scapegoat” was Atmosphere's breakthrough single, and by “breakthrough” I mean that they were suddenly granted access to the college radio audience. (This is probably why “Scapegoat” was included in two different formats on the Overcast! EP: the album version and the radio edit.) Ant's instrumental could be melancholy and puppets-dancing-creepy had it not been for the scratches in the source material: the beat still sounds unnerving, but now only in that every thing old ever sounds unnerving, kind of like hearing “Jeepers Creepers” in the horror movie of the same name, which was directed by the convicted child molester Victor Salva. Oh, the song? Not bad, for what is essentially a rundown of items people shift the blame around for when they refuse to accept responsibility. It was fine, I guess.
12. ODE TO THE MODERN MAN (LIGHTNING BLEND)
As a musical genre, hip hop is inherently silly. Rappers glamorize violence, debase women, glorify material wealth, and run around in packs all the time as if that is supposed to be normal behavior, and we are told to take everything with a laugh and a grain of salt. So when I hear self-serious artists such as Slug refusing to evoke even the mildest chuckle out of the fact that his career consists of him simply talking to an instrumental, I'm prone to not enjoying it so much. It's okay to smile every once in a while. Also, the title to this song is really fucking ridiculous. That is all.
Rather hilariously, Slug tackles every bullet point I listed during the previous paragraph, compiling nearly all of them into this gangsta rap parody (only the blatant materialism is excluded, but it wouldn't have really fit in this particular narrative anyway). The end result is an engaging, legitimately funny song that disproves everything I said about “Ode To The Modern Man (Lightning Blend)”, except for the fact that the title is still awful and the previous track was pretty terrible. That won't change for me. The second verse on here is especially interesting, due to Slug's attention to detail and the ending, which you can see coming from a mile away but still manages to work.
14. MULTIPLES (REPRISE)
Okay, now, seriously? I didn't care for you the first time around. What makes you think that your reprise will suddenly win me over?
15. CAVED IN
Spawn lets listeners in on a monologue performed fully in his head while the world around him metaphorically collapses, trapping him within the walls of a prison of his own design (hence the title). The idea itself is pretty good, and the rhymes are there (some of which deal directly with the passing of his father), but Ant's music unfortunately fails to live up to that promise, thereby making my first sentence of this paragraph much more interesting than how this actual song turned out. The brief instrumental interlude at the very end was very Pete Rock-ish, without sounding anything like the Soul Brother, so that was nice.
16. CUANDO LIMPIA EL HUMO
Ant, Slug, and Spawn attempt to be clever with their song title, which they say means “When The Smoke Clears” but translates more literally to “When Cleaning The Smoke”, which doesn't sound nearly as cool. Sadly, writing out the song's name en Español is the only intriguing element about this exercise, as the limp beat accosts you with a tuneless melody while Slug and Spawn spit rhymes that are impossible to give two fucks about. For those of you two looking for pretention for pretention's sake, there have to be better examples than this shit. Groan.
17. THE OUTERNET
Ant's spacey instrumental lends this track a sci-fi vibe that rappers Slug and Spawn run with: although the rhymes aren't especially nerdy, you get the feeling that those two could easily cross that line at any moment (especially at the end, with their plans to “network”). This song wasn't bad, and its placement at the end of Overcast! is actually perfect, as it is exactly the type of outro that these guys would manage to put together. So it's too bad that Overcast! isn't actually over yet.
The following track isn't listed on Overcast!.
Overcast! ends with a quick battle rap, as Spawn and Sean take on all challengers over the hardest drums Ant has used in a long while. Spawn manages to get in all of the good lines, proving that he might have had an interesting career had he not been a pessimistic realist (although I'm sure that he's fine with the choices he made with his life), while Slug takes a quick moment at the end of his verse to thank the listener for purchasing the album. Always a nice touch, that.
After “Untitled”, Overcast! ends the program with a hidden bonus track.
So Atmosphere has tricked us again: Overcast! actually ends with a Slug tour de force that finds him lyrically dressing down his wife while living as trailer trash in a mobile home in Hinckley, Minnesota. Comparisons to a certain Marshall Mathers will fly back and forth, mainly because Eminem really was trailer trash before he hit it big, but you shouldn't discount Slug's performance, which takes verbal spousal abuse to an entirely new plateau. “Primer” was smartly left off of the original Overcast! program, as it in no way fits in with the rest of the album, but it does prove that Slug can work within the confines of a theme and find new and creative ways to have fun with it, no matter how repulsive he comes across to the audience while doing so. Huh.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Atmosphere's Overcast! is an overwhelming, dense body of work, almost like James Joyce's Ulysses but somehow even less accessible. Rappers Slug and Spawn sound like the most loquacious emcees at your high school's talent show, reading their English thesis papers to the beat of producer Ant's drum. Slug has a way with describing even mundane visuals with an immediacy that is undeserved, and Spawn spits lyrics like a champion battle rapper who refuses to defend his title, which is to say that he comes across as arrogant. Without context, Overcast! is a tough album to sit through, as each track demands your full attention: it's like listening to Thirty-Two Short Films About Atmosphere. The early days of Ant, Slug, and Spawn provide some interesting diversions, but they aren't all gravy, as only a few of these tracks qualify as actual songs, and nearly every single one of the choruses sounds terrible. Most of the instrumentals also fall into the category of incomplete-sounding, which is entirely by design but doesn't make them suck any less. Overcast! showcases enough talent from its star attractions to warrant a continued look into the Atmosphere catalog, but when taken by itself, it's a rather dull debut album. But hey, everyone has to start somewhere.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this if you must. Some of this is pretty fucking interesting, but you truly aren't missing anything if you choose to skip past Overcast!, as most of it is incredibly hard to get into in the present day.
BEST TRACKS: “WND”; “Current Status”; “Brief Description”