y experience with rap music is sadly limited. Part of this is growing up white, fairly rural and liking my dad’s music just fine, thanks (luckily “dad’s music” was Neil Young, the Clash and Crowded House rather than, say, Neil Diamond). Part of it is due to my relative poverty, which limits my record choices to what shows up in my neighbourhood used record store. Part of it is due to the fact that it’s always easier to buy what you know than what you don’t. Often, it’s naturally where you start, and you find more than enough there to occupy your dollar.
All of which is to give you an idea of the grounds on which I approach Atmosphere’s new record. Although there’s certainly plenty of rap I like, I’m not up on genres, conventions, clichés, and most importantly context. For all I know Seven’s Travels violates a whole bunch of unwritten conventions that would be blindingly obvious to a dedicated rap fan.
All I know is what the record sounds like to me, and in this case it’s number of things: interesting, strong in places, but overlong and uneven. Slug, the rapping half of Atmosphere, sounds incredibly angry on some of the tracks (‘Trying To Find A Balance’, ‘National Disgrace’), but much more laid back on some of the others, particularly the longer ‘Lifter Puller’ and the great hidden track at the end, a shout out to Minnesota and other ‘boring’ places to live that, coming from a ‘boring’ place myself (Canada) I really appreciate.
But since Slug sounds so relaxed and confident on those tracks, and so antsy and pissed off on others, it’s hard to get a read on him, even across 19 tracks. I don’t particularly care if he wants to veer from indie rap self-deprecation (“Atmosphere finally made a good record/Yeah right, that almost sounded convincing”) to more mainstream sounding attempts at misogyny and disses (although some of those are entertaining (see: “I got some last words: Fuck all y’all/Stop writing raps and go play volleyball”)). The misogyny, most prevalent in ‘Bird Sings Why The Caged I Know’, may or may not be to prove a point (I think Slug is ranting in ‘Bird Sings…’ in an attempt to conflate every day misogyny and broader issues in the American psyche, but it seems pretty muddled to me), but it still rankles. Either way, the song displays another unfortunate characteristic of Seven’s Travels: the song keeps going far too long after the last verse is over, with a repeated chorus to lead us out ever so slowly.
Ant, who produced the record, does a capable job for much of the album, erring towards minimalism most of the time (although the one time he approaches full out rock-band fuzz, ‘Cats Van Bags’, is a highlight) and his drum programming, even then, is often good enough to get your head nodding. None of the songs compete for your attention, however, allowing Slug to carry much of the album lyrically.
And while Slug and Ant are undeniably talented (tracks like ‘Gotta Lotta Walls’, while not standouts, are worthy of earworm status), there’s too much here of middling quality. Nothing is really wince-inducing, but if they’d focused on really improving 13-4 of the tracks here, Seven’s Travels would be outstanding rather than merely pleasant. That much I do know.