Atmosphere

Seven's Travels

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In the year that followed God Loves Ugly, Atmosphere's travels nearly took them to a major label; unlikely as it might have seemed at one time, the hip-hop trio's cerebral yet down-to-earth sound had become one of the hottest things in the underground, thanks in large part to rapper Slug's charisma, and surprising vulnerability. But the group pulled back, deciding to retain control and assign the album they'd completed to punk label Epitaph. That move made sense on a few levels, not least because Seven's Travels bristles with the independent spirit that put both punk and hip-hop on the map. There are any number of disgusted references to the mainstream; "National Disgrace" coldly observes a drunken star and notes, "This is a career, not a hobby." And producer Ant's varied and effective trick bag sometimes even includes a raw, uncompromising sound miles away from any imaginable chart action. But Atmosphere has always resisted the art-for-art's sake strain that has infested hip-hop in recent years; as Slug himself says early on, "I'm trying to find a balance." The beats seduce with R&B richness as often as they snarl, and instances where lyrical abstraction runs wild ("Cats Van Bags") are the exception, not the rule, because Slug is as much a storyteller as diarist. "Shoes" is another of his pickup-gone-wrong tales, ending in giggles in front of the toilet, and "Always Coming Back Home To You" dissects a slice-of-life moment with a guy and a gun in unexpected fashion. Just as remarkable, though, is the optimistic commercial for small-town living that follows, as Slug observes, "Minnesota is dope/if only simply for not what we have, but what we don't" and leads a shout-out that goes in part "If the playground is free of stems and syringes/If there's only one store in your town that sells 12-inches/say shhhh." Now that's keeping it real.

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