Atmosphere travels to the 'Southside' of solid rap music

Sean “Slug” Daley and Derek “Spawn” Turner began performing together in high school, acting as a rap duo until 1989, when they were introduced to producer Anthony “Ant” Davis. Alongside Ant, the duo — under the name Urban Atmosphere — refined their song structure and delivery techniques. They dropped “Urban” from their name, combined forces with several other rappers and formed record label Rhymesayers Entertainment.

Atmosphere’s first album, “Overcast!” was released in 1997. Though Spawn left the group in 2000, Slug and Ant have since released 10 EPs and albums — including the latest May 5 release “Southsiders.”

Given the group’s pseudo-legendary status within the hip-hop scene, the release came with high expectations. After collaborating for more than 20 years, Slug and Ant have effectively cultivated their own sound, expectations and fanbase — which has been waiting three years for new material.

What I expected from “Southsiders” was a hard-hitting album with the flashes of self-loathing which have historically played off Slug’s struggles with alcoholism and difficulties as head of a family. I expected Slug to deliver what Slug does best — and has done best for years.

Instead, I found an unsure artist producing an album lacking confidence and swagger. Overall, the entire compilation felt like background music whining for attention.

In “Arthur’s Song,” as Slug raps, “Cause we don’t need to hear you sing / of how you spent your time as king / Being mad at everything,” his message seems to have shifted. Whereas in the past, Slug’s music has been described as “emo-rap” for its contempt toward both the world and himself, this newfounds lack of self-assurance seems to signify the end of a kingdom. The rhymesayer lives on, but the middle-aged artist may have produced some of his last work.

“Star Shaped Heart” also reveals the album’s inherent self-doubt. The song opens with the sound of a freight train passing — and not to represent a promising journey. There is something very dismal about the beat and lyrics which follow: “Breast pocket full of useless words / I made a promise I would prove my worth.” It is a promise Atmosphere seems to have been finding difficult to keep.

The rest of the album consists of wishy-washy lyrics which are more insecure than passionate. I did not enjoy listening to the album in the same way no one likes to hear someone else complain about his or her weight. It left me unsure of what to say or think, and torn between frustration and sympathy.

This could very well be the message Atmosphere is trying to deliver — but it isn’t one I was interested in playing in my car. While I am not questioning Atmosphere’s talent or impact on the rap community, I do think this album is anything but powerful — especially coming from such a powerful group.

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