My favorite rap album skit never fails to make me chuckle, particularly from a period when rap skits were often considered tiresome or overkill. There was Rugged Man’s darkly comic “Pick My Gun Up”, Redman’s brilliant Jerry Springer spoof “Jerry Swinger Stick Up”, and best of all was the skit at the end of “Crown of Thorns“, a thumping track from Reef the Lost Cauze’s 2005 album “Feast or Famine”. It depicts caricatures of the two ends of the underground hip-hop spectrum during the early 2000s and it’s astutely observed. MC Combustion Justin vs. Corleone Capone- trust me, a battle for the ages. It leads into the song “Give It Up” as Reef voices his own opinions on how a lot of the underground music wasn’t just poor, but completely fake. The skit in particular, pokes fun at this sense of being genuine ahead of making good music, and inevitably listening back to some of this so-called real hip-hop, it stands out as try-hard. I was that guy lapping this stuff up, I’m not ashamed to admit that. In 2005, I was an eighteen-year-old rap nerd obsessing over Jus Allah and Canibus verses, lost in the battlefield of hardcore lyricism.
Throughout all this, Atmosphere’s earlier work passed me by, and I’m sure it did for others. Unfairly labeled emo-rap, Slug and Ant’s early work has aged wonderfully, and is more genuine than any of the aforementioned material I fawned over for years. I wouldn’t say it was a misspent teenage period, but I do regret not being as into Atmosphere as I should have been. In 2023, they are up there with one of the best groups (or technically duos) in hip-hop history, and they did it all without trying to be real – they just were. By naming their latest album “So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously”, it had me considering what they meant by this. The problem with being a rap nerd, is that I instantly tried to assign an awkward acronym to this – what on earth are S.M.O.R.E.S.? A s’more is usually a snack consisting of sweet marshmallows stuck between two crackers. Given Slug and Ant are both white, I thought this was a stretch to consider their music the sweet glue that brings them together, nor would the duo refer to themselves as ‘crackers’. It just seems beneath them.
The video for “Okay” felt like a love letter to us rap nerds, with all the cameos it features as Slug navigates a world post-pandemic, second-guessing his actions but ultimately determined to declare things will be fine. It’s the perfect start to the album, particularly listening to it now, as it’s a welcome helping of optimism. Music is the best medicine, after all. Ant provides some instrumentals that continue to be experimental, which is something he doesn’t really get appreciated for. “Eventide” jolts from muffled to warm – Ant’s drums remain the hardest this side of Dr. Dre – and then “Sterling” is a short, sharp interlude that has a ridiculous electric guitar wailing away. There’s what sounds like a harp on “Portrait”. You’ve got an acoustic guitar and an electric one on the brilliant “Dotted Lines”, which is littered with the usual one-liners. Slug always manages to rap, and have you go away thinking. “I’m trying to sing a lullaby in a world full of noise”. I felt that shit. Twenty-five years in, they aren’t reliant on a formula, and still tackle hard-hitting topics with careful consideration. Paranoia and anxiety drive “In My Head”, something you’d think would be completely miserable to listen to, and yet it works thanks to the retro sci-fi feel of the beat and Slug’s willingness to sprinkle humor in the rhymes.
At twenty songs, there is a lot to take in. Probably too much, considering the limited attention span of many listeners, but Atmosphere albums are designed to be revisited, explored, and absorbed. It’s why it’s taken me six months to get around to writing about it. I’ve ummed and ahhed over just how good this is, compared to their best work. Whereas earlier material often dwelled on Slug finding his purpose, here he has located it but constantly questions himself. There’s a lot of anxiety, and the drums feel harder than ever. It can get bleak too, namely “September Fool’s Day” and the sweeping “Bigger Pictures” as Slug chants “on and on and on and on” for over a minute.
Hope exists in pockets, but it’s the social commentary that Slug continues to excel at articulating. “I don’t even know you but I need your affection” on “Sculpting With Fire”, or the moment he addresses the state of modern emcees on “Positive Space”:
Make party and inflate the balloon
You bent me up into the shape of a spoon
I’m from a gutter full of ordinary litter
Where we figured that the storm will come and push us towards the river
This ain’t the underground this the compost
Stand and deliver call me Edward James Almost
Always appreciate the quintessentials
You rock over your vocals, I roll with these instrumentals
If you got a lot of voices in your vegetable
Avoid the noise that tries to poison your receptacles
I won’t pretend to know how you define successful
But I still wish you all of the success though
And when I’m dead, I’m gonna haunt the stereo
Temporary resident extraterrestrial
Check with me later for my specialty flavors
On your turntables and your record players
“Talk Talk” is lively, but sounds like a song lifted from a different artist’s album and plonked in the middle of this one, and doesn’t have a hook to match the dance-able instrumental. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “It Happened Last Morning” either, as musically it threatens to build to something bigger but never gets there.
“S.M.O.R.E.S.” is very much an album of ups and downs, not necessarily in terms of quality, but in terms of structure. After every two songs, there is a minute-long one, as if to give the listener a brief moment to take a breath, before being dragged back into another thought-provoking tale from Slug. Ok, dragged is probably the incorrect term, because there’s a friendly, conversational style to how Slug raps, and it often makes his message strike harder. He’ll warmly guide you into the greyest world in the most eloquent manner. It’s reality rap, bordering on self-help for an artist with a wide emotional range that’s constantly questioning himself. It never reaches the morbidness of an NF record, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people bounced off of this album. If anything, it reminds me of the brilliant Elzhi album “Lead Poison” which dealt with depression. Rich with storytelling and unfiltered emotion, “S.M.O.R.E.S.” is similarly potent, and is frequently revisited.
With the duo about to drop their new EP “Talk Talk” as well in December, it’s hard to argue with such an impressive, varied discography. “So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously” sits proudly alongside “God Loves Ugly“, “When Life Gives You Lemon, You Paint That Shit Gold” and “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having” as excellent examples of hip-hop albums that are as real as it gets. They’ll be the first to admit they aren’t the trendiest or the dopest, but they may well be the most genuine. Their talent seemingly shows no signs of waning as they approach their fifties- that’s the reality I’m seeing.