Underneath a cloudless sky

“Local boy makes good” is only half the story.

Keri Carlson

There are two paths for Twin Cities musicians who want to make it big. Either you blow up into a major national act and don’t look back (the Andrews Sisters, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Prince), or you can struggle in that strange limbo of almost-made-it, where the hipsters love you, but the masses ignore you (Koerner, Ray and Glover, The Replacements, Husker Du). Given this, it is amazing that local hip-hop darlings Atmosphere are on the cusp of breaking on the national level. They’re selling out tours across the country and now they’ve been signed by punk label Epitaph for their latest album “Seven’s Travels.”

It’s not that the group doesn’t deserve the attention. It’s just that Atmosphere’s center man Slug remains so Ö Minnesotan. The bigger he gets, the more of a hometown boy he becomes.

Since Atmosphere’s first album, “Overcast,” Slug’s rhymes have revolved around internal reflection and the struggle to become an individual – two themes that don’t fit into traditional takes on hip-hop. Even while bumping through a party track, Slug is always conscious of the bigger picture. This is something very Midwestern, especially Minnesotan. Winter often makes it impossible to escape the house, which leaves you with only your thoughts for company.

“Seven’s Travels” continues Slug’s quest to find his “self.” The album kicks off with the self-explanatory “Trying to Find a Balance,” and soon after, “Reflections” follows. Both these tracks find Slug’s flow and delivery at their prime, although they don’t break out of the usual Atmosphere territory.

The songs grow more interesting, however. On “The Keys to Life vs. 15 Minutes of Fame,” Slug rambles a paranoid rant in which he states, “The key broke off in the ignition,” referring to the inability to turn off his thoughts. “Denvemolorado” describes Slug at rock bottom in the perfect setting, alone in an airport bar on Valentine’s Day.

While producer Ant’s beats mostly fail to match Slug’s challenging lyrics, the simplicity serves to highlight the rhymes. But Ant’s most innovative beats can be found on “Seven’s Travels,” especially on “Cats Van Bags,” where the sound evokes the revved engine of a speed boat.

“Seven’s Travels” peaks at “National Disgrace.” Here, it is obvious Slug could never ditch the Twin Cities for New York or Los Angeles. He first dedicates the song to celebrities who “utilized their 15 minutes of fame to realize their true dreams of being an absolute jerk-off just to keep the masses entertained.” Slug then plunges into a hilarious polemic against the United States’ rich and famous who are praised for acting “dumb and ignorant, drunk and belligerent.”

“Always Coming Back Home to You” especially confirms Slug’s devotion to Minneapolis. On the hidden track “Say Shhh,” he brags, “If you can drink tap water and breathe the air.”

But the biggest display of Minneapolis love comes from Slug’s references to old local greats Lifter Puller. “Reflections” shouts, “You kissed like you already came, and that’s a Lifter Puller line for those without any game.” Slug even titles a track “Lifter Puller” and at the end whispers in the background the famous Lifter Puller line, “Every time I chase a squirrel it rips apart my world.”

Lifter Puller influences Slug’s songwriting beyond the direct references. Slug uses recycled lines and characters similar to those that made Lifter Puller famous. The character Lucy from Atmosphere’s “Lucy Ford” is reminiscent of the character Jenny from Lifter Puller’s songs. Within Atmosphere’s own body of work, “Reflections” repeats a line similar to the beginning of “Modern Man’s Hustle” from the album “God Loves Ugly.” This continuity bespeaks a maturing artist. If Slug continues to develop these characters and story lines, Atmosphere albums will become more complete works of art.

Atmosphere might be receiving more and more national attention, but “Seven’s Travels” is truly a record for Minneapolis. It’s a treat for those who know and love our music scene.