Get in where you fit in: Too $hort raps about girls, Cypress Hill raps about weed, and, until now, Slug rapped about Slug. But for his fifth album with rap duo Atmosphere, he’s officially inactivated his LiveJournal, opting instead to spin fictional tales of various grumblers lurching around the streets of Minneapolis: strippers, junkies, chain-smokers, teenage moms, blue-collar drones, frustrated waitresses and, of course, the nighthawks who obsess over them. Maybe empathy is catching up with him, so he’s rhyming about other people as penance for building a career on his own first-world problems. But Slug is no Buck 65, let alone Tom Waits. He doesn’t so much paint a scene as draw feelings on a road map: Girl is confused because she’s in an unfamiliar bed, and then she’s guilty because she threw up in a stranger’s toilet again: “And then the chills begin/And then the ‘God please kill me right now’ hits,” etc.
But grown-ass Atmosphere gets its sharpest growing pains due to a change in production techniques. After one too many lawsuits, producer Ant abandoned his armada of kitschy, heart-tugging samples and started recording live instruments. He’s trying to make what Sage Francis couldn’t last year: NPR-friendly hip-hop, a Feistian bargain, indie-rap made for a year where “indie” sells but rap doesn’t. So the piano twinkle and mere droplet of a beat on “Like the Rest of Us” sounds like Slug doing Regina Spektor; the coos and plucks of “Me” are Yael Naïm; the barista-strum acoustic rap of “Guarantees” aims for Elliott Smith and ends up with Uncle Kracker; the skipping hand-clap gospel of “Puppets” is pure Moby Playtime; and, for some reason, “Dreamer” sounds like Michael McDonald—funkless, martial, stiff, and innocuous, perfect for an upwardly mobile 21–45 demo that seeks neither boom nor bap with their soy latte.