It can be said that hip-hop is one of the “youngest” genres of music in existence. The landscape changes constantly. Every hit is a sign of what's to come, and a death knell for a previous movement. This preoccupation with “what's next” has killed many a career. Hip-hop might have the greatest number of has-beens, never-weres and one-hit-wonders of any genre as well.
But, of late, that idea has been turned on its head by the continued success of rappers like Jay Z (age 46) and Kanye West (age 38), and producers like Timbaland (age 43) and Swizz Beatz (age 37).
These are still the exceptions rather than the rule, though. These are all legends for a reason. Does anyone expect Migos to have that kind of longevity?
That's why Atmosphere, a duo consisting of rapper Slug (age 43) and producer Ant, is such an important case study in how to stay relevant. True, they've never sold the number of records Jay Z or Timbaland has. They never will. But since their inception in 1989 and the release of their first record, Overcast!, in 1997, the duo has been quietly laying the groundwork for a career that is the stuff of legend in the hip-hop world.
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One of the reasons it's so hard to stay “good” for very long in hip-hop is that trends come and go so fast. Trends in this genre have such a short shelf life that it can make someone's head spin trying to keep up.
Atmosphere has changed a lot since they started. Slug's lyrical content, naturally, has evolved and shifted continuously as he has experienced new levels of fame and developments in his personal life. Charting the course of his rhymes from day one is a Herculean effort, as Slug is constantly preoccupied with the present.
Even when he might not have something to say about himself, he, unlike many rappers, turns his focus on tales of others. Atmosphere's 2008 album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is a perfect example, wherein most of the songs on the album focus on character sketches of imaginary people trying to make it through the struggle of life.
This is just one reason Slug has clung to relevance for so long. Where so many rappers fail to change up their lyrical content, repeating the same tired boasts and stories of the streets ad nauseam, Slug has managed to consistently excite by changing direction every few years. The other major reason Atmosphere has been able to stay on top of the indie hip-hop world is the production style of his partner-in-crime, Ant.
Ant's beats have undergone marked changes every single record Atmosphere has released. His interests seem to be constantly undergoing revision, as he incorporates live instruments, samples and other effects to change Atmosphere's sound seemingly at the drop of a hat.
Pinning down a definitive sound for the group is difficult because they've been around for so long and switched it up so much. Is it the soul-inspired sound of “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands?” Is it the John Frusciante-esque guitar of “Guarantees?” Is it the bouncing reggae bass and keys of “Just for Show?”
Atmosphere are brilliantly adaptive, but their changes are always organic. They've never been a group that follows trends. They've always existed on the periphery of the mainstream, elegantly skirting whatever has taken hip-hop by storm this week.
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It's not raw rap. It's emotional, experimental and rife with ideas. Unlike the usual rappers who buck trends, Atmosphere don't try to keep it “real.” They just do whatever they feel like. That results in something that stands the test of time yet remains unique in the annals of hip-hop.
They've consistently laid their claim as legends for almost 20 years now, without breaking form or vying for mainstream attention. They are who they are, and when it comes down to brass tacks, they'll be looked upon as some of the best artists that hip-hop has ever produced. All that without a radio hit.
Their “hits” are the fan favorites. That's how they can sell so many tickets every time they tour, and draw huge crowds to House of Blues on a Thursday night without releasing an album in almost two years. Tonight's show is one you can't miss if you're a fan of real hip-hop.
Atmosphere performs tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 8 p.m.