If there is some sort of Presidential or Congressional Medal for Fan Service, Atmosphere should probably plan a trip through Washington, D.C. very soon. The Minnesota rap duo have a habit of filling the time between proper releases with awesome little gifts for the people who allow them to do this for a living. Between 2005’s stellar You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having and 2008’s even more stellar When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, Atmosphere dropped – for free – a “party” album called Strictly Leakage which probably ranks right behind When Life Gives You Lemons as one of the two best hip-hop releases of 2008.
Of course, a follow-up to When Life Gives You Lemons will be a most welcome thing whenever it gets here. Until it does, Atmosphere has kindly decided to release 2 EPs on one disc (some of us would call that an album, being 12 tracks and all) and they’ve given the whole package the unwieldy full title of To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs. We’ll be calling it To All My Friends for short and whether you think it’s an EP or an LP, you can assure yourself of one thing: like the bulk of Atmosphere’s recorded output, To All My Friends is fucking awesome.
Pitchfork’s review of To All My Friends, which was mostly positive, contained a pretty hefty jab at When Life Gives You Lemons for its tendency to use (gasp!) real instruments. The P-forkers accused Slug (MC Sean Daley) and Ant (DJ Anthony Davis) of aspiring to be Gym Class Heroes, an accusation every bit as baseless as Pitchfork’s assertion that Sufjan Stevens is some kind of musical wizard. In fact, Sufjan Stevens is a trust fund kid’s Andrew Bird. Pitchfork isn’t wrong to be nervous about the use of live instruments in hip-hop, though: the usual result is something horrifying known as rap/rock, which seems to be all frat kids can come up with when rapping around a real live rhythm section. Here’s a test: can you name any good rap/rock bands? No? Me either. But Pitchfork is missing two crucial points that set Atmosphere’s use of real instruments in a different class than, say, Linkin Park. First: while there is a certain rock undercurrent to a lot of Atmosphere’s instrumentation, some of it is clearly soul and R&B based, creating funkier rhythms for Slug to flow over. Second, Slug writes better lyrics than your average Gym Class Hero or any of their ilk. I realize that’s not hard, so allow me to clarify: Slug writes better lyrics than the bulk of his hip-hop contemporaries and lyrics matter a lot in hip-hop, maybe more than in any other style of music. Besides, attributing the shittiness of Gym Class Heroes to their use of live instruments is overlooking a whole pile of more terrible features of their music. Like collaborations with Fallout Boy on songs that steal their chorus melodies from Supertramp. But – and I can’t stress this enough – Gym Class Heroes (and Rage Against the Machine, still one of the most overrated bands ever) notwithstanding, live band hip-hop can still be done well. If you saw De La Soul’s set at Coachella last year (or presumably anywhere else), you have a good idea of what I’m talking about.
About the time Sage Francis dropped the Lyrical Master ball and crawled up his own asshole to restyle himself as some sort of hip-hop Johnny Cash (which, you know, when you put it that way, sounds like a fuck-terrible idea), Slug picked that ball up and has been eking out Heisman-worthy yardage with it ever since, occasionally pitching on an option to fellow Rhymesayer Brother Ali. Slug crafts witty, humorous stories of life at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, a position he has had experience occupying. Even when he’s engaging in that tired old tradition of dissing other rappers, he’s legitimately better than they are – “Hope” provides the best example on To All My Friends, and it hinges on a jaunting electric guitar lick. Mostly, though, To All My Friends spends a lot of lyrical time being positive and reminding the listener to do the same. “Free Fallin” and “To All My Friends” end the album (er, EP[s]) with a one-two punch of 1) be grateful for what you have and 2) I’m grateful for what I have. Now, gratitude is nice to hear from rappers (I mentioned this in my review of Brother Ali’s Us, which you should own by now), but it struck me while listening to To All My Friends that it’s really difficult to do the whole positivity thing without sounding like a deluded idiot – Atmosphere pulls it off with style, largely because he seems to be operating in earnest. His optimism is hard-won to be sure, but that’s the best kind of optimism. If I can digress here (only slightly) for a minute, I think the reason a lot of overtly positive music (think Christian rock) sucks is because the positivity tends to exist in a vacuum. I don’t begrudge you your optimism if you haven’t suffered much, but I don’t find it very interesting either. If life has never really hurt you, of course you’re going to be positive. But if that’s the case, your life is probably pretty fucking boring. It’s much more compelling to me to see someone who can keep their head up even though life keeps throwing rocks at their face. I think Atmosphere and fellow Minnesotans the Hold Steady possess a gift for making decent positive music because they’re not just telling you to put on a happy face because Jesus loves you. Their songs acknowledge the negative aspects of life which help us appreciate our good fortune. To All My Friends will never try to kid you into thinking that everything is going to be all right because Atmosphere doesn’t believe that everything can be all right – things can be pretty good for quite a while and, if you calibrate your brain right, you can let the good shit carry you through the bad times.