Atmosphere Continue to Battle the Current on 'Fishing Blues'
“Everybody wanna see a falling star.” This is a phrase that is repeated during the hook of “Ringo,” the lead single of Atmosphere‘s eighth studio album, Fishing Blues. In the context of the song, it refers to the spectacle of seeing somebody, especially famous, become a complete train wreck. MC Slug, one-half of the duo, narrates the song as somebody still drunk from the previous night, sadly trying to recall the messy events that transpired.
Yet that phrase can also serve as a metaphor for Atmosphere themselves, as they enter another decade of existence as a duo. Aging rappers have to fight to maintain relevancy against newer, younger artists and avoid the labels of having fallen off in the game. It’s been almost 20 years since Slug and producer Ant (along with then-member Spawn) released their 1997 debut, Overcast!. Since then, they’ve served as pioneers for independent hip-hop music (especially in their home state of Minnesota) and work behind-the-scenes of influential label Rhymesayers, which they co-founded. Fishing Blues is a testament to show that Slug and Ant aren’t falling stars. They may be in their 40s now, but they can still make music like they did years ago.
Atmosphere’s output since 2008’s When God Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold has been described as “dad rap,” as albums The Family Sign and Southsiders saw a noticeable shift in subject matter. Slug and Ant had grown up. They weren’t hard-drinking, smoking, smart-ass kids in Minneapolis anymore. The party lifestyle was replaced by marriage and fatherhood. Slug has always been almost overly sincere in all his lyrics, but that sincerity is filled in other places. The self-loathing from Atmosphere’s early records is replaced with what is almost contentment, as Slug views vices like drugs and alcohol in the rearview mirror.
They continue with that momentum on Fishing Blues, a title that reflects the references to the sea on the title track, “Seismic Waves” and “Everything,” among others. “But the boats obey the waves/And then the little fish spoke as it broke away/It said, ‘Know limits, but know with a ‘K,”” Slug raps on the title track. An album rooted in fishing analogies and self-reflection might be the most “dad rap” thing in history and seem corny, but Slug’s sincerity sells it well.
Not everything is all positive wisdom from these sailors, though. “Ringo” and “Next to You” are songs about screw-ups, drunk and horny characters, perhaps autobiographical through a lens of Slug’s trademark self-deprecation. “Pure Evil” is the tale of police brutality from an officer himself, with the song denouncing a cop’s preservation of themselves at the expense of those whom they should protect. “Seismic Waves” is about “Fish swimmin’ up a river of pessimism,” trying to overcome this bleak world.
Slug’s words wouldn’t be as clear and concise without the excellent production from the oft-underrated Ant. His usage of live instruments, from the N.Y. boom-bap emulation of “Chasing New York” to the jazzy sound of the title track, shine through on the album’s 18 tracks. Whether he’s playing shimmering pianos, funky bass or scratching records, Ant makes the album sound beautiful.
While Slug is the lyricist in charge here, he isn’t the only indie rap veteran giving his thoughts on Fishing Blues. Names like Living Legends’ The Grouch (“Fishing Blues”), MF DOOM (“When the Lights Go Out”) and Aesop Rock (“Chasing New York”) give strong performances as well. Kool Keith, one of the biggest pioneers in alternative and forward-thinking hip-hop music, also shows up on “When the Lights Go Out” to rant about fame and gossip. As Atmosphere are more than capable of speaking for themselves, Slug and Ant make sure that the features aren’t simply tacked on, but add to the themes and ideas they’ve already put forth.
Some may call it “dad rap,” but Fishing Blues isn’t your dad’s Atmosphere album. The duo is more than content rapping about adulthood and leaving the partying in the past. The music doesn’t have the same bite as their old records, but what is offered instead is Slug and Ant evolving and aging gracefully, staying strong more than 20 years into their careers.
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Author: Chris Gibbons
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