Hip Hop, it’s stronger than ever. It’s ruling the airwaves and even inspiring many Pop stars to incorporate elements of the beloved genre in their music, and if you shovel out all of the Trap band wagoners you’ll find a great deal of young rappers who can actually flow, and who are also pushing the genre to the next level with their fearless experimentations. Whether it be Vince Staples’ dig into Industrial-tinged abrasion, or Kendrick Lamar’s thematic grandiosity, Hip Hop remains one of the most forward thinking genres in the music world, but let’s not forget the class of Hip Hop artists who pushed the boundaries in Hip Hop way before the new school. In the early 2000’s mainstream Hip Hop was in a shameful place. Forgettable rappers were producing club anthems and were more concerned with making Rap to party to versus Rap with substance, but an alternative to this was the no bullshit world of Underground Hip Hop. You had artists like Aesop Rock and El-P from the Def Jux label who carried that MC spirit while producing challenging non-traditional Hip Hop that turned many Hip Hop purists off, you had West Coast crews like Hieroglyphics and Living Legends, and you had Rhymesayers Entertainment, a record label that was founded in the most unlikely place for Hip Hop, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Among the founders of this label were the now legendary Atmosphere. Later becoming more well-known as a duo after their formation, the group became one of the leading forces in Underground Hip Hop due to MC Slug’s impeccable barfests and producer Ant’s simple but enigmatic Boom Bap production that featured diverse samples from old Soul music to old Horror movie soundtracks. What really separated them from their peers was Slug’s shocking sense of introspection and his fearlessness to get personal, and my God does he get personal, his knack to be an open book lead many music critics to label them Emo Rap, but we all know that’s a ridiculous term. Slug just wears his heart on his sleeve. He was often self-deprecating yes, but he could also fuck you up on the mic. Here we are now 20 years after the release of their debut album, and the group continues to have a devoted following and have cemented themselves as icons in the world of Hip Hop.
With this list I will be ranking all of the group’s full-length studio albums from worst to best. This list will not include any of the Sad Clown releases, EP’s or the Headshots tapes, although those are definitely worth checking out.
9. The Family Sign
Following the incredible When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold, the group were pretty much stuck in the same headspace on their follow-up The Family Sign. Slug’s vivid storytelling and the use of live instrumentation that was perfectly executed on that previous album carried over onto this album but the delivery was less effective this time around. The stories of terrible men feel overdramatic and Slug’s voice doesn’t carry that usual fire on this record. This album feels like a compilation of throw away tracks that didn’t make the cut on When Life Gives You Lemons, and it feels like a failed attempt to branch out of Hip Hop.
This album was sort of a return to form for the group. Going back to the MC and producer dynamic, this album featured the group’s most Hip Hop-centric music in years, but unfortunately the delivery is quite stale. Slug’s storytelling is tired at this point, and Ant’s production just doesn’t carry that same foot tapping groove it used to on this album.
7. Fishing Blues
The group’s second attempt to go back to basics following Southsiders was a lot more successful this time around. This is a straightforward Hip Hop album that even had an impressive list of features including Aesop Rock, MF Doom, and The Grouch, but it’s hard not hearing this album as something coming from two middle-aged guys trying to recreate what made them so compelling in the first place, but hey, it’s nice hearing that fire in Slug’s voice again.
6. Seven’s Travels
The group’s follow-up to the highly successful God Loves Ugly was underwhelming compared to it’s monster of a predecessor, but it definitely showcased the talent the group has and their desire to really push their sound to the next level. With experimental interludes that redefined the term Alternative Hip Hop, the group brought a Rock edge to the table with guitar work provided by Nate Collis, and this was fitting seeing as how this album was released on the Punk label Epitah. This album might have been a better release if some of the fat was trimmed off, the second half falters a bit with the exception of the heartfelt ode to their hometown Always Coming Back Home To You, but their are some strong gems on this album like Trying To Find A Balance, Lifter Puller, and the speaker blowing Cats Van Bags featuring the one and only Brother Ali. Despite it’s heavy dose of filler tracks, this is an exceptional Atmosphere release.
5. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
After years of never touring with Atmosphere, producer Ant begin to finally tour following the departure of longtime touring DJ Mr. Dibbs, and along with him came a live touring band that shined a whole new light on their songs. It wasn’t surprising that on the album that followed, When Life Gives You Lemons featured live instrumentation, and the combination of keys, guitar, heavy synths, and Ant’s beats worked beautifully. This was a whole new Atmosphere. Slug’s storytelling was cranked up and was less personal this time around, instead the MC detailed stories of average day to day people trying to make ends meat, deadbeat dads, and drug addicts. This album has it’s fair share of tear jerkers. Yesterday finds Slug reminiscing over his deceased father, and the closing track In Her Music Box comments on how early in life us people use escapism to cope. I dare you to listen to these tracks and not shed a tear.
4. Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EP’s
Yeah I know, this is more of a collection of tracks from the Lucy Ford EP’s, but all the songs run together well as a whole album. This release has some of the group’s most essential tracks like Between The Lines, Guns and Cigarettes, Party For The Fight To Write, and The Woman With The Tattooed Hands. These songs were proof that Slug can really hold his own following the departure of member Spawn (now known as Rek The Heavyweight,) and it gave Slug room to really develop his lyrical style, the self-deprecating style we all love him for. The constant references to his bad luck with women, the unique storytelling, and of course the moments of braggadocio all prove that even though Spawn was an excellent member, him leaving was something that just had to happen in order for the group to develop their initial sound. This is also the only Atmosphere album that wasn’t entirely produced by Ant.
3. You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having
The name says it all, the group sounds like they’re having loads of fun on this record with Slug flowing his ass off and Ant providing beatcentric banger after banger instrumentals. With lyrical content uncommon in Hip Hop with themes such as prescription drugs and panic attacks, this album separated the group from their peers. The topical and concerned lyrics backed by Ant’s solid and quite danceable production was a contrast that worked perfectly.
This was the album that started it all. It’s astonishing that this album was released 20 years ago and it still contains bars that can throw a lot of newer rapper’s bars to the ground. This is Hip Hop 101 with members Slug and Spawn flowing and flowing over Ant’s Boom Bap heavy instrumentals topped with dark and ominous samples and good ol’ DJ scratching. The inclusion of incredible rapper Beyond (now known as Musab) encapsulated the beginning stages of what was to become Indie Hip Hop’s most influential record labels. This was a time where the crew were proving to the Hip Hop world that they have an undeniable talent.
1. God Loves Ugly
Those of you who know anything about Atmosphere know that this is their most iconic album. If you want to learn what the group is all about, you go to this record. The themes of bad luck with women, depression, and heartbreak that were presented to us on Lucy Ford were translated more perfectly on God Loves Ugly. The production was more polished but didn’t lose it’s dark edge, and proved that simplicity can be even more effective than complexity. At this time Slug was well aware of the place he was in, providing not only melancholy and angry verses, but also verses about his impact on the world of undergound music. This album doesn’t get enough credit for making it okay for rappers to talk about their feelings, and whether they want to admit it or not, rappers like Drake owe a great debt to this record.
Written By: Steven Sandoval