Minneapolis hip-hop duo MC Slug and producer Ant, otherwise known as Atmosphere, have remained worth following throughout their long career despite the fact that their albums only rarely bear the kind of rewards that a well-seasoned and steadfastly independent rap group ought to serve up on the reg. Likewise, their discography wants for the classic statement that might retroactively validate their many missed or mediocre efforts: The closest they've come to such a release was 2008's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. Critics have been nodding politely in Atmosphere's direction for well over a decade now, which raises the question of why we keep coming back to a duo that seems unlikely to deliver on their initial promise.
I suppose the answer has something to do with the fact that, for all of their shortcomings, Slug and Ant really do exist in a world entirely of their own creation. Like most of their best material, The Family Sign seems only loosely connected to hip-hop as it's produced and performed anywhere else in the underground, let alone on the radio. Atmosphere predates the emergence of a credible rap scene even in Chicago; the upper Midwest was uniquely stranded from the great coastal rap dynasties. Slug is white, and there was obviously no Eminem when he was getting started. So there's a real sense that Atmosphere had to figure hip-hop out for themselves, drawing on the funk and hardcore scenes to piece together their own piecemeal approximation of the hip-hop they enjoyed listening to.
Just listen to the songs on The Family Sign: Because they consist mostly of spare piano and gentle acoustic guitar, you wouldn't know that Atmosphere had even heard of Lil Wayne or Kanye West (though "She's Enough" sounds like a hard-rock take on the Neptunes). And the fact is that these are songs, not "tracks." Organic where most rap is synthetic, determined by the groups internal dynamics more than any trend, Atmosphere's work exudes integrity. And for that the group deserves props.
But The Family Sign makes the case that Atmosphere could benefit from a more discursive approach to their sound, maybe absorbing an idea or two that originated with a big-shot rap star rather than reinventing the wheel and ending up with something awkward and square-shaped. Slug's verses are frequently clumsy and slow, a somewhat recent development that seems to correspond with his increasing interest in narrative raps, as though the once-fiery MC fears that going too hard will somehow make his stories too difficult to follow. But the child-abuse chronicles and other stern domestic dramas that make up The Family Sign's lyrical matter are too boring to pay much attention to, which is owed entirely to the fact that Slug's distant and overly deliberate delivery makes zoning out all too easy. And since Ant's production aesthetic nearly always favors the laidback and minimal, well, there's simply not much to hold a listener's interest.
Eschewing the dynamic pop and soul flourishes that made Lemons something of a crossover vehicle, The Family Sign is simply flat. As disappointing as it is to admit it, whatever momentum Atmosphere seemed to have finally built up has fully dissipated in a mere three years.