A few years before they dropped their 12th studio album, “WORD?”, the Minnesota hip-hop duo known as Atmosphere began a shift in their musical style. I’d say since 2011, their music and lyrics underwent a transition. Ant began an experimental drive into synths which ultimately culminated in the form of the duo’s 2020 release “The Day Before Halloween”, while Slug’s lyrics were wrapped up in a level of maturity that can only be summed up as “adult contemporary” (read: “boring”). Though both producer and emcee have grown, “WORD?” takes them back to the kind of Atmosphere releases that I looked forward to pre-2011. Slug’s lyrics reflect elder statesman status as he is no longer rhyming like Charles Bukowski observing volatile bar patrons and writing vivid descriptions about them. The album title corresponds to each song title, all of which are comprised of solely one word. Though I admit, the last six Atmosphere albums didn’t quite move me, this new one gets my head-nodding back in motion to a certain extent.
Entirely produced by Ant, this release is something of a slight return to the Atmosphere from yesteryears. There are also more guest stars up here than usual, including one bonafide posse cut. It starts off with “Fleetwood”, which has a slow tempo, and the rhymes don’t start until the one-minute mark. There’s a breath of a few seconds in between verses, but no hooks. As a testament to Slug’s change, he raps, “Ayy, I’m not the same dude I used to be, thankfully / Permanently angry, tryna burn your little angel wings”. On “Something”, there’s some ceremonial drums and middle-eastern vocal samples. It’s a motivational track in which Slug identifies a glowing contradiction as an aging hip-hop artist: “I’m closing in on fifty and my fashion is flagrant / I’m officially too old for these pants to be sagging”. “Crumbs” has a playful guitar plucking which drives the beat. It features hometown emcee Muja Messiah, and labelmate/frequent collaborator Evidence, who brings his customary monotone flow which is just right for the beat. Muja has the best verse, however, with effortless multis about feelings of anxiety. “Woes” talks about the things that distress us, but over an alarmingly upbeat production.
“Strung” has hard drums and some haunting atmospheric vocals. Along with Musab, both emcees talk about the stress from poor eating habits and diets. It’s a rather beneficial, though unusual, concept to rap about. “Clocked” is about not having enough time, time to do what one wants. This beat sounds dark and surreal, the first of its kind on the album. “Distances” contains distorted vocals, while the beat sounds similar to the kind of bombastic drums and melody one’d hear at a state fair or carnival, which doesn’t say much about the sample collage coda in the last minute or so. “Sleepless” has a multitracked atmospheric choir abound, and is built from a piano key sample. Brooklyn’s Nino Bless helms the second verse and his wordplay outshines Slug’s verse:
The album semi-ventures back into synth territory (but returns to a sample-based shift near the end) on “Carousel” which features songstress, Nikki Jean. “Vanish” has the shortest length, just under two minutes. Not only is it upbeat AF, but it’s also just as danceable. “Skull” is straightforward storytelling about a fatal car crash. Slug has previously made references to this story as released songs such as “Hair” and “Scalp”, but now “Skull” completes the trilogy with Slug rapping from a bystander’s perspective. The posse cut arrives in the form of “Pressed”, which features Anwar HighSign, BlackLiq, Sa-Roc, Haphduzn & Lateef the Truthspeaker, all of whom make some use of the word “press” in their verses:
The final two tracks include “Nekst”, which waxes lyrical about learning from regrets, and “last but not least” is “Barcade”, which features Long Island emcees Aesop Rock and MF DOOM, the latter’s verse is posthumous, of course. It has the same video game vibe (but spookier) from the trio’s 20-year-old collaboration “Put Your Quarter Up”. For any Atmosphere fan who was on the brink of giving up on them for their change in swing, this reviewer asks that you reconsider. “WORD?” brings the duo out of existential adulthood and has them rediscovering the fun they used to have with hip-hop. Hearing it from start to finish, this is the first Atmosphere album released in 10 years that I feel it was worth the purchase.