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Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having

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Artist: Atmosphere

Album: You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having

Label: Rhymesayers

Review date: Oct. 26, 2005

"The only women that love you are fans and family," Slug muses to himself in "Little Man": "Mom has no choice, but fans leave you randomly." As it turns out, this analysis is not entirely true: since his last remotely good record, 2002's crass but salvageable God Loves Ugly, fans have had perfectly good reason to jump ship. Between the ill-sanded corners of that album and the next year's Seven's Travels, Sean Daley got caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of insufferable solipsism (namely, the more he dwelt on how much he sucked, the more he sucked). Atmosphere's charm has always stemmed from the unique way Slug lets things get to him, but the last few years made him a sort of emo-hop caricature, too "real" for everyone short of that particularly hell-bent breed of Suicide Girl. At least his mom was on board, and so on.

But You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having is better. It's abrasive, but it's more sporting and less persecutory about it. It's not as good as Ugly, but it's not as bad as Travels, and it's a welcome step in the right direction. "Little Man" is by far the highlight – gently self-aware, wryly cynical and thoroughly tasteful. The rest is never that good, but it goes down easier; some of it works pretty well, like the subdued tension of "Say Hey There" or the actually soulful soul sample on "Get Fly," and, more importantly, you spend less time wishing Slug would give it a rest and more time just wishing he were 18 again.

He was at his most powerful when his demons were love and divinity, his least when they were his immediate neuroses. Here they're mostly just life – not life on the road or life after a particularly destructive relationship, just life. Mellowing has made him less petty and more articulate. The freewheeling spirit of 1997's Overcast! and the fierce intelligence of the Lucy Ford EPs are lost, but he's getting older, and he does much better for recognizing that fact than he ever did trying to deny it.

Fun isn't a 180-degree conversion; the angst remains, and tangibly. "Say Hey There" and "Angelface" are about relationship difficulties, but they do their work earnestly without too much purgation; meanwhile "Smart Went Crazy" is about fame and "Little Man" is a poignant meditation on his son, his father, and himself. Sometimes Slug tends toward confrontational nonsense ("Bring me the head of whoever said play fair / I want to sit in my chair and wear a blank stare"), and his choruses, never his strong suit, are prescriptively dumb here. But all the same, this is a rapper you can learn something from, a rapper whose ability to play cleverly with words and rhymes isn't eclipsed by his screamo-ass need for bloodletting.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that this album would sound better if it sounded better. If the rhymes are a great improvement over Seven's Travels, Ant's production is largely stagnant; the beats are loud, clattering, and exhaustingly (and undeservedly) self-referential. There's too much low end, something too intentionally menacing. The constant boom is an interesting counterpoint to the ridiculous BAP of Ant's canonically too-loud snare, but it tends to make for decent hip-hop backing tracks at best, not the urgent sparseness of "Scapegoat" or the wonderful lushness of "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands" (actually, "Pour Me Another" is similar to the latter, but it's much, much too similar). Aside from "Little Man," none of the beats are memorable – which means that none of the songs really are either.

So, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having is not so much a good record as a good sign. Maybe the moderated self-awareness throughout "Little Man" and in corners elsewhere is the admitting-you-have-a-problem step; maybe Slug will accept that it's time to leave the catharsis to Cage and the shock value to Sage Francis, and settle for giving us the benefit of his aging wisdom. In any case, editorial distance makes Fun a much better record than pessimism would have predicted. If it doesn't live up to its distant predecessors by a long shot, it at least makes it clear that Atmosphere's recent flirtations with suckiness are not irremediable.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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Seven's Travels

When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

The Family Sign

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