Atmosphere goes 'South' for summer

After fostering the Twin Cities’ biggest record label and hip-hop career, Slug’s and Ant’s new record ponders what they might leave behind.

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Minnesota hip-hop kings Slug, right, and Ant have released a new Atmosphere album, “Southsiders.”

Photo: David Joles • djoles@startribune.com,

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If you really want to see Slug squirm, read him a line like the one a big Los Angeles publicity firm wrote to hype the new Atmosphere album:

“Atmosphere transformed the city into a nexus from which underground rap spiraled out to the masses.”

While he publicly maintains the cocky facade that comes with the “Rappers 101” handbook, the frontman of Minnesota’s most celebrated hip-hop act has actually long been squeamish talking about what he means to Minneapolis. His hometown’s knack for self-deprecation and cynicism were always some of his greatest attributes as a songwriter.

The slightly graying, black-hoodie-wearing, forever soul-patch-chinned rapper first shrugged off the “nexus” sentence as PR drivel, but then he owned up to it.

“I used to always be afraid I’d look like a [jerk] saying things like that,” Slug said.

“But then I realized certain people are always going to call you a [jerk] anyway,” he said. “So why not?”

Defining your legacy is one of the driving themes on Atmosphere’s new album, “Southsiders.” Another is not caring what other people think, unless they’re people you care about.

Naysayers who put down Atmosphere for being the big cat in town — and others who justifiably did not like their mushy, mellower 2011 album, “The Family Sign” — might have forgotten how far Atmosphere actually went in the 2000s with an almost entirely homegrown operation.

High-water moments included landing two albums in Billboard’s top 20, myriad late-night TV appearances and sold-out gigs from Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater to Hollywood’s Palladium (both on their itinerary again this summer).

On the home front, Atmosphere became the flagship act for Minnesota’s biggest record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, and the perennial headliner for the Twin Cities’ top music festival.

“I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can stop and look at it all and gloat,” the real-life Sean Daley, 41, said as he sat down with his chief collaborator of 17 years, Anthony Davis, at a coffee shop near Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis last weekend.

“The older I get, the more I have to embrace the fact this will not last forever. There’s some of that on this record.”

The title of “Southsiders” is certainly intended as a homage to the not-exactly-tough but far-from-cush sections of south Minneapolis where Slug grew up, and still lives.

“Every record has abided by the rule that in hip-hop you represent where you’re from,” he said. “This one, I just finally decided to include it in the name.”

Don’t expect lyrical shout-outs to Everett’s Meats or Victor’s 1959 Cafe or any other South Side mainstays. Even the song “January on Lake Street” doesn’t offer any literal references to the area, but the lyrics do point to other avenues explored on the album:

“Claim that you ain’t afraid to die/ Then why are you afraid to fly?/ You better face the heights/ Get your bravery stripes or get your name denied/ ’Cuz you was waiting for a safer ride.”

Slug sounds preoccupied with his own mortality on “Southsiders,” which is no surprise given the spat of sudden deaths he has faced in recent years, including his dad and his protégé, Eyedea. The younger Rhymesayers rapper is movingly memorialized on the album in “Flicker” (“You know me, you know I’m a control freak/ Who told you you could die before me?”).

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