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Album review: Atmosphere might need to come back to Earth

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For the past decade, Atmosphere has reigned as one of the biggest names in Minnesota-based hip-hop. Its brand of confessional, emotional music has garnered rapper Slug and his beatmaker/producer Ant (as well as the live musicians who sometimes perform with Atmosphere) all kinds of accolades and fans both local and national.

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“Southsiders,” the group’s eighth release, is as alternately thoughtful and dopey as ever.

After a minute-long intro that features a melody that sounds like it was sung by one of the adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons, Slug gets to work.

“I’m ice cream mixed with gasoline,” he says. It’s unclear if he’s trying to say that he’s appealing and revolting at the same time, or that he’s useless in powering a combustion engine and needs to be discarded properly. “The past’ll stick like initials carved in the concrete / like the tattoo that hides on your mommy,” he says, rhyming words that don’t rhyme and ending with something that sounds like a real dig a second-grader might drop on the playground.

It continues: “Ferris wheel / give rides / the scars healed in time to get high.” Wha? “Ferris wheel / give rides”? There’s nothing wrong with using carnival imagery, but it’s like saying “red car / go zoom” or something similarly empty. Also, a Ferris wheel doesn’t “give” anything. You go for a ride on one — it doesn’t have a conscious mind with which it can grant a person something.

But then there are lines like “I keep to myself, my family and friendships / I got enough people I can disappoint,” and, suddenly, the power of Slug’s visceral honesty and ruthless self-examination can blow away his nonsensical or more-boneheaded utterances.

The yin-yang show continues with “Arthur’s Song,” which mixes a cool conga-and-keys track that sounds like something from an old Bill Withers album with over-enunciated, empty lyrics like “Sippin’ on that brown stuff / got you feelin’ like you found love” and “Spinnin’ around like a popular record / my head feels lighter than the fuzz on a feather.” Fuzz? Is that what is on a feather? Or did that line just need a couple of extra syllables, and that was all Slug could come up with? (Also, unpopular records spin, too.)

“The World Might Not Live Through the Night” rides a neato wah-wah sample and has a radio-ready chorus that includes the song’s title, but when you start to think about time zones and how “night” in one place on the planet is day in another, you start to wonder if this Slug fella should spend more time on his lyrics.

Over and over, the songs on “Southsiders” careen back and forth between interesting and repellent, sometimes from line to line. It’s tough to get behind tracks that start with great dirty synth figures and then get saddled with stomach-turning drivel like “I ain’t tryin’ to sound scummy / but if you lick my wounds / it tastes like money.”

The title track is an easy high point; it’s got distorted tremolo guitar that gives the cut a Sergio Leone feeling, and Slug sounds a lot more invigorated than he does on the rest of the album’s endless mid-tempo R&B.

But, basically, it’s nothing new, and if you’ve enjoyed Atmosphere in the past, this album keeps alive their essential components. But it’s missing that spark that the “Lucy Ford” era had, and it’s likely that Slug and Ant will never top their early achievements.

Ice cream and gasoline? Any takers?

Atmosphere / “Southsiders”

Producer: Ant

Website: rhymesayers.com/atmosphere

Personnel: Slug (vocals), Ant (programming)

Listen to: “Camera Thief”

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

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