The Family Sign (Rhymesayers, 2011)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Thinking about Atmosphere’s seventh album as Atmosphere’s seventh album is an idea destined for disappointment. Atmosphere is a venerable presence in underground hip-hop, a great point of entry into rap culture for the uninitiated, and an inspiring example of the independent work ethic, if only because Slug and Ant continue to make music and tour their asses off. But Atmosphere peaked around the turn of the century, and each album is another nail in the coffin of the duo’s sharply introspective, aloofly magnetic early work. Ant’s beats have gotten stale and predictable; Slug has become increasingly hardened to his own vulnerability, which was what made his candor worth listening to in the first place. The Family Sign is mature in its way, soured by age and wisdom, but it’s no fun. If we’re going to take pleasure in it, it’s going to have to be from an angle where Lucy Ford and Overcast! don’t set the overarching standard.
So let’s suspend history and consider it as a story unto itself, the first of its kind from this act: a reflection led by an artist approaching mid-life and looking back on where an adult life full of transience and mildly questionable decisions has gotten him. If we’re to believe the PR spin on The Family Sign – in particular the unexpectedly earnest teaser video series with the group in cognitive behavioral therapy – it’s the story of that stock-taking, the purgation of those vices and unhealthy relationships and the embrace of what’s real and meaningful. It’s a difficult process, one full of bile and self-doubt, but ultimately it’s a positive story – if it’s not a total redemption, it’s at least worth their time, and by proxy ours.
Sure enough, there are a few gestures in this direction: single “She’s Enough” affirms commitment to a long-term partner, for better and for worse; “Something So” finds a little hard-won confidence in the face of the challenges of parenthood. But the lion’s share of the album is, well, ugly and dour, jaded and jilting: stories of the drunken drudgery of life on the road (“Millennium Dodo”) and of creeplike romantic brinksmanship (“Just For Show”), and one wonders how role-playing this ugliness can really be productive or therapeutic. What’s the point of the unapologetic, cartoonishly wicked narrator of “Bad Bad Daddy”? Where’s the greater merit to the clinical insight into domestic abuse in “The Last To Say”? Why package as a learning experience a series of vignettes that are mostly hopelessly pessimistic?
Measured by past Atmosphere albums or not, The Family Sign‘s questions of purpose would be less preoccupying if the album were more skillful or eloquent in its inquiry. The production is better than usual here, thanks to some solemnly bluesy cushioning from a guitarist and a keyboardist (neither of whom invests any faith in the therapeutic process, if the videos are any indication), but Slug doesn’t do himself much credit as a lyricist. Occasionally he’ll turn in a couplet that recalls his old dexterity, but most of his rhymes are elementary and delivered in singsong, almost mocking the enterprise. His higher-concept devices feel clunky (the Christ’s-footsteps-on-the-beach allegory of “Became”; the spurned-lover-as-dog video for “Just For Show”), and the most endearing moment – where he channels Snoop Dogg while feigning surprise in “Your Name Here” – is almost certainly inadvertent. He’s always spoken like a weary soul; here, he rhymes like an embittered old man.
And that’s surely much of the point. Slug has been nothing less than honest throughout his career – often more so than is strictly necessary, but honest all the same – and if his present outlook is that of an embattled, exhausted, existentially washed up musician coming to terms with the people and places in his wake, it’s a good thing he’s not aiming to make The Family Sign anything that it’s not: no “Scapegoat 2011” revisit, no Lil B cameo. But even abstracted away from the shine of Atmosphere’s glory days, this album tells a story with precious few redeeming scenes or likeable characters. Eat your heart out, Cormac McCarthy.back