Minnesota’s flagship rap heroes Atmosphere surprised fans with an unannounced album just before the holidays. The bigger surprise, though, might be the professional circumstances that originally sparked the record, and the older and wiser personal outlook that frontman Slug proudly believes shaped it.
Titled “Whenever” — as in, he told his record label to release it anytime — the album is the second big release in a row from Minneapolis indie-rap imprint Rhymesayers Entertainment to arrive without the usual monthslong buildup and hype. Brother Ali’s latest LP, “Secrets & Escape,” also abruptly dropped on Nov. 1 and still earned a favorable reception.
“Whenever” similarly stands up as way more than just a throwaway Atmosphere effort.
Slug — aka south Minneapolis native and father of four Sean Daley — revealed to us that the album actually started out as one of the most ambitious and accessible projects he’s ever undertaken with his inseparable producing partner Ant (Anthony Davis) in Atmosphere’s 23-year career.
“It was supposed to be the soundtrack for a TV show,” he dropped midway through an interview last week.
“Most of the songs were made thinking about that ‘gotcha’ moment at the end of HBO shows, when the song starts just as the credits roll. I wanted everyone who heard the music to get that rush and pull out their Shazam and say, ‘Who the [bleep] is that?!’ ”
Alas, the TV plans fell through because “the lawyers couldn’t work it out,” Slug said, not wanting to name the series in question.
The upside was he and Ant had 10 songs in the can ready for a quick release; very quick, it turned out. They’ll have copies to sell on their winter tour that kicks off Monday at First Avenue and ends Feb. 28 at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul.
The guy who first took Minnesota hip-hop into Billboard’s top 10 and still serves as ringleader of its nationally renowned festival Soundset (on tap again for May 24), Slug was frank about not being the hip, indie-rap trendsetter he was two decades ago. He wears the “dad-rap” tag proudly, and he basically said “whatever” when asked about the kind of reception he expects for “Whenever.”
Slug on how he cares more about the music but less about how it’s received nowadays: “We just made something we believe in. If people don’t respond to it, that’s fine. If there’s a point when kids aren’t into us anymore, then that makes total sense, because we’re old, and to them we probably look like old guys yelling at clouds.
“That said, I truly believe Anthony and I are making the best music of our career. I have no control over whether or not other people believe that, or if people don’t feel it’s as good as our old stuff. But I see firsthand how much better Ant has gotten. He’s making music that blows his old stuff out of the water. And for me, I know how much I put into my writing now, the work I do. I’m at the top of my game. It’s my game, I created it. I never copped anybody else. I can be proud of that, at least.”
On the plan (or lack thereof) to release the new album without any notice last month: “I’ve never been a huge fan of the long album [promotional] campaign thing anyway, and I wonder if it even matters anymore; maybe only when you’re on a major label that’s worried about the bottom line and keeping 200 people employed to work on your campaign.
“After Ali’s record, I thought we’d give it a try. Thus far I’m not disappointed. I don’t feel like it’s been overlooked. I don’t see any complaints from the audience doing it this way. In this climate and era, people listen to an album, decide whether they like or not, and then they move on if they don’t like it.”
On his partner Ant’s return to town after several years (and albums) of working from Oakland, Calif.: “I don’t know if it makes the music better, but it’s way more fun being in the same room making music together. We did ‘Family Sign’ and the demos of ‘Southsiders’ from different ends of the country, and that was interesting in a new-exercise kind of way, but it’s way more efficient having him here. He can tell me right away if he’s not into a verse I lay down, before I can get attached to it.
“The bigger factor is we have our own home studio now. We’re not on the clock at all. These last two albums have been made there, and it’s very comfortable. I can go work in the studio at 3 in the morning if I want.”
On how the opening track “Bde Maka Ska” and the lake of the same name inspired much of the album: “It’s about reclamation, which is what happened with the name change of that lake. Even though there are lines about being at the lake, it’s really about figuring out what’s next, and what I figured out was me trying to reclaim everything that has been taken away from me. I’m not talking about resources or money or privilege taken away from me. I’m talking about more internal stuff, things that I’ve shut off in myself since I was a kid. A lot of the material touches on that theme, which I didn’t really pick up on until after the album was finished.”
On the less-serious track “Postal Lady,” about his real-life mail carrier: “It grew out of just some random tweet I made about two years ago now. It was like, ‘Am I tripping? My postal lady is hot.’ One of the responses was, ‘Write a song about it.’ So I did. It’s really based on a very corny joke: This woman brings me my mail. Get it?: She’s bringing me my ‘mail’ [or ‘male’?].”
On sexually toned songs from his past that might be deemed outdated in the #MeToo era: “Not every man, but a majority of us of a certain age have certain [stuff] in our past that was based on machismo and other [B.S.] that sucked. We’re in an era, I hope, where young men don’t have to deal with that kind of [stuff] as much. I’ve learned a lot myself. I used to be a lot more ignorant and naive. I really had to grow and challenge myself, especially since there are some people — younger men in particular — who might be looking to me.
“Now, I mean, I have four sons. I have to make sure that everything they see me do is multiplying positivity. But I think it’s important any male rapper with even just an ounce of influence does that now.”
On having all women for opening acts on this tour, with the Lioness, Nikki Jean and DJ Keezy: "It wasn’t really by design, it was just naturally what needed to happen. Nikki Jean had to come out because she has a new album coming out on [Rhymesayers], and we're excited for her. And the Lioness just needed to come out with us again, because she already proved herself as the first opening act [on prior tours], and she’s gotten even better so this time she's the direct support. She is literally the best rapper in the Twin Cities. Straight up."
On how different it is being a rapper at 47 instead of 23: “I have much more space for creativity now, because I’m not using all that space trying to prove myself to others or to myself. Younger artists do a great disservice to themselves trying to prove themselves. They’re the ones who often speak the loudest, who scream, ‘I’m an artist!’ But there gets to a point where you don’t really have to do that anymore.
“So many young rappers rap about being a dope rapper. Older rappers like me are instead writing stories. Older rappers aren’t trying to prove themselves as rappers, they’re trying to prove themselves as a person. You see that in legacy artists like Jay-Z or Nas. They proved they’re great rappers. Now, they want to prove themselves valuable in other ways.”