Review: “The Family Sign” Atmosphere

The local rap juggernaut’s first proper studio album in two years is a devastatingly dull affair.

Raghav Mehta

“The Family Sign”

Artist: Atmosphere

Label: Rhymesayers

 

When it comes to Twin Cities hip-hop, Atmosphere sits at the very center of it all. As local staples like Dessa and P.O.S. continue to grow in popularity, RhymesayerâÄôs indie-rap veterans remain at the commercial forefront of the very scene they helped foster more than a decade ago. 

But despite a loyal fan base, the act that was once heralded as the reigning kings of the Twin Cities underground seems to be stuck in a state of creative stagnation. And with the arrival of their sixth proper studio album, âÄúThe Family Sign,âÄù Slug and AntâÄôs qualitative decline has never seemed so pronounced.

Flanked by guitarist Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson, the album is far and away the groupâÄôs most sonically adventurous effort to date. ItâÄôd be superficial to call âÄúThe Family SignâÄù a hip-hop record.

All the classic soul-power samplings that characterized AntâÄôs previous aesthetic are absent this time around. Instead the beats are sparsely arranged, layered with somber piano segments and quiet reverb-soaked guitar. And the aural dynamics pair well with SlugâÄôs even bleaker subject matter âÄî familial themes like domestic abuse, lost friends and deadbeat fathers.

Despite the albumâÄôs cohesive quality, âÄúThe Family SignâÄù not only ends up being the darkest Atmosphere record to ever be released, itâÄôs also the dullest.

ThereâÄôs a sense of lethargy that courses through the entire record. From the clumsy cadence of âÄúBad Bad DaddyâÄù to the lazy bounce of âÄúAinâÄôt Nobody,âÄù the songs sound more like unfinished demos culled from half-assed studio sessions than final products. ItâÄôs like what a rap album would sound like if Pavement wrote it.

The record is also rife with all the narrative tropes that have come to dominate most of SlugâÄôs raps in recent years. However, the entries in SlugâÄôs diaries have become dull as time has passed.

Gone is the fiery boozehound that once claimed he âÄúlived life like the captain of a sinking ship.âÄù Instead, âÄúThe Family Sign” is full of bland anecdotes about the daily grind of everyday people and common man’s woe. While the change in technique is admirable, the content is usually too boring to hold oneâÄôs interest. And that mundane form of storytelling is where album suffers the most.

Even when delving into darker subject matter, Slug fails to be very compelling, delivering flat verses like, âÄúShe gets to mourn for the touch of a punch / WonâÄôt ever admit that she ainâÄôt clutchinâÄô it much / Someday sheâÄôll die, it still wonâÄôt be done / The anger lives on through her son.âÄù

However, in spite of all the lackluster melodrama, there are a few moments on âÄúThe Family SignâÄù that remind one of the more lively emcee from years before. In the chorus-less  âÄúBecameâÄù âÄî the groupâÄôs best song in years âÄî Slug raps with a certain intensity and vigor that recalls his glory days of âÄúSad ClownâÄù dubs and âÄúLucy FordâÄù diaries. But these moments are few and far between and fail to keep âÄúThe Family SignâÄù from descending into banality.

Unlike the groupâÄôs 2008 release, âÄúWhen Life Gives you Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold,âÄù the album doesnâÄôt boast enough redeeming qualities to warrant repeated listens. Ultimately, âÄúThe Family SignâÄù collapses in a 50-minute mess of minimalistic clunk and clatter that feels utterly purposeless.

ItâÄôs true that even the deftest musicians have their occasional creative blunders. But if it comes to that, it’s important to at least sound like youâÄôre trying when it happens.

1.5 out of 4 stars