When we look back at 2014 in hip hop, it’s going to be remembered as the year OutKast reunited and, most likely, the year Kanye West released another groundbreaking album he stopped his tour to finish up. But to not pay attention to Atmosphere’s latest offering, Southsiders, would be a classic case of missing the woods for the trees. Where most hip-hop artists make their names out of controversy and consistent reaching for the stratosphere, Slug and Ant have been content quietly cultivating exactly what you think they’d be good at: Atmosphere.
They’ve always been one of the most appropriately named teams in indie rap. If the atmosphere is what is all around us, Slug’s a master of documenting it. Instead of chronicling sexual conquests or providing an entertaining expose of egocentrism, he scribbles out all the fits and starts of what it means to be a young man growing older in the modern world. He’s equal parts commandeering emcee and the likable friend who becomes a pretty poignant philosopher when he’s got enough pot in him to loosen up. Ant’s always been a perfect partner for conveying his musings against a backdrop of keyboard-centric jams and bleary-eyed beats. Southsiders is proof their team effort is still working.
It’s not to say Slug doesn’t rap about the usual suspects: drugs, women and other rappers. There’s even a track on here called “Kanye West,” for God’s sake! But Southsiders carries on the tradition of him just doing it differently than most others playing the game. He’s more restrained, less egotistical and more aware of his mortality and insignificance than most of his compatriots.
When it comes to Ant’s production and DJ work, they sound like they’d be just as at home being warbled over by some trip-hop heroine like Beth Gibbons as they are being rapped over by Slug. “Flicker,” a track toward the end of the album, sounds like the first rap song that’d sound fine as part of the soundtrack for a Wes Anderson movie. It’s things like that which show just how unique of a creative voice Atmosphere is in the contemporary world. If Yeezus was a sign hip-hop was heading in a more aggressive direction, Southsiders is the loyal opposition that it should get even more quiet, understated and mellow.
Atmosphere is to indie rap what The Shins are to indie rock. They’ll never be the hippest, most poignant name to drop around those in-the-know, but they’ll be damned if they aren’t the most pleasant to listen to. Slug possesses the same melancholy tone, tempered by “just-right” optimism, as James Mercer and everyone knows, at least in their subconscious, how well it works for both of them.
Southsiders isn’t going to change the world, but the name of the duo is Atmosphere—this record doesn’t want to change the world, it just wants to describe the way it is and maybe make it a little easier to live in.