Atmosphere—comprised of the venerable Slug and Ant—have had a sprawling career as underground vanguards. Across their decades-long partnership, the duo have tapped into the weird and caustic, producing cutting album after cutting album and speaking truth to pain. Their work has demystified heartache and the tortures of coping through the most common and accessible vices: alcohol, drugs and women.
For over 20 years, Atmosphere have pursued the underbelly of what it means to be human with a rabid curiosity. Ant’s dusky production has provided the pulse for Slug’s evolving and matter-of-fact pen. As Slug transitioned from throwing-up-in-the-backseat-raps to holding-hands-when-you-cross-the-street-raps, Ant has grown to be a master of crate digging and unearthing the humanity of a drum loop. Always, the duo was concerned with privileging their personhood, with making music as ugly and jagged as life itself. Thriving at the intersection of guttural and self-effacing, Atmosphere will go down as some of America’s best archivists.
In 2018, with Mi Vida Local, Atmosphere entered into the album cycle “full of discomfort.” As Slug grappled with his mortality and the disconcertment of being an American, Ant soundtracked these sobering thoughts with iron-clad guitar chords, shivering melodies, and meaty percussion patterns. Just a year removed from their at times funky, at times bluesy, and always boom-bap-fueled tour of woes, Atmosphere return with a new album.
On their seventh album, Whenever, the duo move in lockstep. Be it the twinkle of “Bde Maka Ska” leading into twanging guitars, or the anxious skitter of “Lovely,” Slug finds obvious comfort in working with Ant. “Postal Lady,” recounts the simplicity of Slug’s life over warm and enveloping production, while “Romance” brings us back to God Loves Ugly with undulating glitches, as if we crawled through Ant’s drum machine. No other producer can pull truths out of a rapper like Ant fishes the blues out of Slug. It’s clear the pair’s harmony is reaching new peaks.
On Whenever, Slug sounds incensed. His previous anxieties have channeled into biting bars, recalling what it means to grow up gracefully in Hip-Hop. Within the minutiae, we still find he’s struggling with his mortality and the need to protect his emotional energy. In the most subtle ways, the album deals with husbanding ourselves from glowering cynicism. Still, there’s a quiet romanticism to Whenever, with Slug sounding—reluctantly—in love with life. It’s the necessary reprieve Atmosphere deserve after the rattling Mi Vida Local.
These aren’t dad-raps, these aren’t anti-establishment-raps, and these aren’t chasing-old-fire-raps. Even at its darkest (“You’re Gonna Go”) Whenever houses blessed-to-be-alive-raps. The album breathes in the way only Slug and Ant could summon a collective breath—they inhale panic and exhale greatness.