In their 25-plus years as a duo, Atmosphere’s rapper Slug and producer Ant have built a legacy that is embedded in the fabric of underground hip-hop. Rising in the ranks of Minneapolis, their debut album, Overcast! was released in 1997. Presented as a flurry of vignettes, and paired with an unending touring schedule, the album was a springboard from which the group was able to become a fixture in the midwest music scene. It wasn’t long before their songwriting evolved from telling inventive third-person tales to delivering introspective first-person eviscerations, and by the early 2000’s Slug would jokingly birth the phrase “emo rap” in an interview before publications began running with the genre tag to describe them and others.
In the decades since their debut, Atmosphere has maintained a course of rigorous output, releasing over two dozen studio albums, EP’s and collaborative side projects in as many years. The venerated duo have built a legacy out of bringing honesty, humility and vulnerability to the forefront of their music. Slug has proven masterful at storytelling and writing compelling narratives, leaving a trail of his own influence while paying homage to the rappers and songwriters that helped shape him. Meanwhile, Ant has skillfully molded the soundtracks with inspiration from soul, funk, rock, reggae, and the wizardry of hip-hop’s pioneering DJ’s and producers, creating his own trademark sounds and providing the pulse for songs about life, love, stress and setbacks. At its essence, Atmosphere has been a musical shepherd, guiding generations of listeners through this thing called life.
Their newest album, 2023’s So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously, captures perhaps some of Atmosphere’s most personal work to date. The odyssey opens with a gentler approach than recent works, with the lead-off track “Okay” seemingly focused on comforting and reassuring the listener. As Slug raps over one of the most twinkling productions Ant has ever released, the song lays the groundwork for an album-length exercise in fumbling consciousness. Yet, as gently as the album begins, there’s an unmistakable sense of unease from the outset that continues to evolve throughout the project, as Slug and Ant weave the listener through indistinct themes of insomnia and woe.
From the subtle panic at the heart of songs like “Dotted Lines” to the overt anxiety of songs like “In My Head,” the unease across tracks is unmistakable. Yet, as the tears might begin to well, they find resolve again through songs like “Still Life,” whose hopeful outlook undercuts the tensity of the album. All the while, the rhythms on So Many Other Realities are some of the most inventive of Atmosphere’s career. Ant’s playful percussion on “In My Head” acts as a nice counterweight to the roiling writing, while the drum patterns on “Holding My Breath” and “Bigger Pictures” allow Slug to play with his flow to emphasize the anxiety driving the record.
Where previous records in this most recent act of Atmosphere’s career have been focused on emphasizing the parts of life that carry the most meaning—family, brotherhood, purpose—So Many Other Realities is an almost unnerving excavation of paranoia inspired by the general malaise of a pandemic weary society full of civil unrest. The tension in these songs is palpable, but the album’s mere presence is a testament to the hope that has to underpin even the most stressed out epiphanies.
The greatest risk Atmosphere has continued to take across their career is that of being vulnerable and unafraid. The world has inconceivably changed since Slug and Ant entered into the underground hip-hop scene, but despite the seismic shifts in music and culture, they’ve held strong to a foundation rooted in sly innovation and truth. The duo’s relentless release & touring schedules only tell a piece of the story, but spending time with their records—whether you’re a new fan or a longstanding listener—reveals a pair of friends who love to create and live for unabashed self-expression. Their bare reflections on life and the mundane traumas and joys that make living worthwhile are a gift, and that is Atmosphere’s legacy in and of itself. If the music stopped tomorrow, the duo would go down as two quiet titans who changed the course of everyman rap forever.