A casual observer might note how easy it looks to achieve underground stardom in 2003. Download some beats, buy a $20 mic to plug in your soundcard, and burn your first album a week later, Illmatic 2. But Atmosphere, the most universally popular group in this subgenre by some distance, achieved their success the hard way: constant recording, long tours, and collaborations from Anticon to Def Jux. Back in 1997 on "The Outernet" Slug outlined his approach, and whether he's reached his destination yet or not, he and Atmosphere have amassed enough support and recognition to last a lifetime.
In their consistently excellent career, last year's God Loves Ugly was a disappointing slip-up, a tepid retread of Lucy Ford that lapsed into self-parody. A slew of excellent songs since then ("My Songs," "Edie Brikell," "Summer Song," "Shhh,") and an outstanding production display from Ant on fellow Rhymesayer Brother Ali's Shadows on The Sun will have restored expectations ahead of Seven's Travels, the fourth and best Atmosphere full-length.
What's different this time around? Well for a start, the beats are simply outstanding. For too long, Slug's been known as an emcee who makes classic songs out of mediocre beats, but Ant has shown enough flashes of brilliance over the years to suggest that maybe Slug just wasn't picking enough of the tight shit. On Seven's Travels, however, Ant practically takes centre-stage, with a terrific, versatile line-up of beats that range from the sparsity of drum-filled "Shoes" to the strumming, whistling and swinging fun of "National Disgrace," perhaps the album's best song. Even the disarmingly El-Pish first single "Cats Van Bags" is a quick grower, a straightforward banger that Slug and Brother Ali tear apart. There isn't anything close to a weak beat on here; it's the first Atmosphere album you could legitimately listen to just for the production.
Of course, with a guy like Slug at the helm, that's hardly a concern anyhow. After slumming his way through God Loves Ugly with a lazy, unengaging delivery, Slug rhymes on here with energy and passion unmatched in his career (as anyone who heard "Bird Sings Why The Caged I Know" on the Epitaph compilation can attest to). Tracks like "The Keys To Life vs. 15 Minutes Of Fame" (the song titles are by the worst thing on Seven's Travels) and "In My Continental" benefit greatly from Slug's extra fervor on the mic, while "Denvemolorado" and "Good Times (Sick Pimpin')" have a sing-songy laid back delivery that, coupled with Ant's exemplary beats, add a new dimension to Atmosphere's sound. Like Ant's beats, Slug's vocals have never been thought terrible, but on Seven's Travels they're shown to be equal to anyone's over a whole album.
Lyrically Slug is as witty and insightful as ever, although on "In My Continental" Slug concedes he's taken a more modes straightforward approach to lyricism this time around (no longer does "every paragraph need translation attached to it"). But once again he proves he's one of hip-hop's finest songwriters, whether just venting on "Trying To Find A Balance," clowning new emcees on the short but sweet "Apple," or ruining some girl's night on "Shoes." And to the list of great Slug stories we can add "Gotta Lotta Walls," a distant cousin of the last verse of "Between The Lines;" "Lift Her Pull Her," a melancholic evokation of young love falling apart; and "Always Coming Back Home To You," another contender for best song, where Slug proves himself a pretty lousy criminal.
Ultimately, Seven's Travels does just about everything right (except perhaps "Suicidegirls," but even that has it's charms), where every previous Atmosphere album had at least one serous flaw. From a group with so many great songs, a brilliant album is hardly a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying. Great stuff.