A new Atmosphere album isn’t met with excitement, but rather the enthusiasm of re-acquaintance. It’s a fitting, if not trite reaction to one of the most durable, consistent acts around. The anticipation never quite evolves into fanboy delirium, however, and part of the reason is you pretty much know what you’re getting with most Atmosphere albums. El-P (either solo or as Run The Jewels), Kevin Gates, and Action Bronson are unmistakably hip-hop, but each one portrays an awareness of what’s beyond hip-hop parameters while displaying a magical proficiency in some unknown territory. Atmosphere’s mastery is inclusive to the genre, but perhaps too inclusive — too familiar.
Southsiders finds the duo back with its usual aesthetics: Introspection, galvanization through open honesty and rebellion, and supplementary beats by Ant. After being caught in the midst of paternal adjustment on The Family Sign, this effort has more of an immediate appeal to it with Slug being less contemplative and more determinist. “Arthur’s Song”, another entry in the Slug vs. Whiskey saga, provides the album with that undertone, and it’s particularly earned on this cut. The description of his relationship is sympathetic but refreshing in how it doesn’t rely on woe-is-me details; he’s not anymore disadvantaged than you are (“We face pain with pain/ Everybody’s the same”).
This is a relatable character sketch that should compel the listener, but Southsiders struggles to do this as it trudges along. Writing as a means of catharsis is one of Slug’s noted motifs in the project but the problem is allowing the listener to share in that catharsis. The verses are tightly wound — like the particularly clever ones in “Mrs. Interpret” and “Star Shaped Heart” — but they’re held together by haphazard songcraft. “The World Might Not Live Through the Night” is an attempt at a carpe diem anthem that hits a bump with the flimsy “They say the end is near/And I doubt they were talking ‘bout this can of beer” line, but it’s all taken down a few more notches thanks to the Disney-esque hook. The weak sing-song of “Bitter” suffers from the same problem, too. Slug can’t shoulder the complete blame, however – Ant’s production turns throughout the LP are serviceable, but also predictable and unconvincing of a replay.
The lack of adrenaline and the misuse of it don’t mean Southsiders isn’t without the beautifully articulated moments that helped establish the duo. “Flicker,” an ode to the late Eyedea, is a song that’s bitter, poignant, and self-depreciative. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a master of words being reminded he doesn’t have the ultimate say in life’s mechanisms: “You know me, you know I’m a control freak/Who told you, you could die before me?” It’s a resonating moment in an album that feels to rife with fleeting ones.
So with the pros and cons taken into an account, Southsiders is another testament to Atmosphere’s durability. We could use a bit more than that at some point though.
3 out of 5
You can purchase Southsiders via Amazon.