Review Summary: Pour me another cause I can still see the floor.
One of the interesting paradoxes surrounding Atmosphere is how the often used but largely incorrect label of “emo-rap” gets blindly thrown on them just because Slug doesn’t even pretend to be a gangster and likes to talk about what he’s wearing that day, his overpowering reliance on alcohol to cure a presumed social anxiety disorder, playing volleyball, and brushing his teeth. Those merits aside, the guts of most of his rhymes are about (surprise!) women, and how he doesn’t have a damn clue on how to deal with them. This is primarily the reason in the public eye Slug is the Gerard Way of the Hip-Hop world, but we would be remiss to simply dismiss Atmosphere as rap for people who prefer puppies over handguns. Amid Slug’s admittedly at times obnoxious weeping, there was once a point where he compensated estrogen-laced subject matter with passion, matching rare male sensitivity with a more-shouting-than-rapping fire. Now that “The Family Sign” and it’s boring caricature of an aging Slug who has clearly lost his fastball has dropped, it’s safe to say we can close the book on him as a vivacious rapper and open the one where he sounds like a diabetic grandfather trying to spin rhymes for the neighborhood kids. The flame started to fade on that 2008 album about Lemons, meaning we can safely identify that the last flicker of Atmosphere’s unbridled passion was displayed on 2005’s “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having.”
“You Can’t Imagine” is an underrated album that is overlooked because it is bookended by their two most commercially popular releases, “Lemons” and “Seven’s Travels.” Its gritty production and tortured subject matter are akin to every pre-2008 Atmosphere album, mixtape, and EP, but the difference here is a noticeable lack of filler, rivaling “Godlovesugly” as arguably the most consistently strong release in their discography. Sure, there is nothing on here as immediately gripping or powerful as “Trying To Find a Balance” or “F*ck You Lucy,” but aside from the turgid “Bam” where Slug actually tries to be gangsta and fails rather mightily, “You Can’t Imagine” is loaded with engaging Hip Hop, showcasing Slug at the top of his form and producer Ant at his arguable beat-conjuring apex. From the barreling opener “The Arrival” to the memorable and downright touching “Little Man,” Slug and Ant consistently slog through an album of Hip-Hop gems that rarely disappoints and showcases a legitimately scary MC/producer chemistry.
Like most of their greatest songs, the high points are the ones where Slug is really f*cked up over some broad and wears his heart on his sleeve without actually sounding like a pussy, an admirable feat and downright difficult to accomplish. “Say Hey There” glides enough for you to ignore that it’s actually an incredibly depressing song, “Smart Went Crazy” is the pinnacle of pissed-off Slug ranting about getting screwed over yet again, and album highlight “Pour Me Another” and its perfect relation to booze therapy proves once again that he can’t handle this sh*t on his own. “Angelface” is about a woman who makes Slug want to walk into traffic, and its beat is strong enough to make the experience of getting exploded by an oncoming vehicle a pleasant experience. “Musical Chairs” gives us a needed break from the therapeutic couch, and carries one of the most infectious choruses of their career. By the time we get to “That Night,” an overpoweringly depressing chronicle of a female fan getting raped and killed at an Atmosphere concert and Slug threatening the dude who did it, we’re actually for once convinced that maybe he can kick some ass.
On any Atmosphere album after this, the thought of Slug making threats to a hardened criminal would be absolutely laughable, but the onus of “You Can’t Imagine” has enough passion to pull it off. It’s depressing to think that this is the last time we will hear this version of Atmosphere, but one listen to their latest output cements the truth that aging does the same thing to Hip Hop artists as it does to great athletes. Maybe instead of lamenting about an entity that stays in the game far too long, it’s best to remember them in their primes. In the case of Atmosphere, “You Can’t Imagine” would be the last example where we could truly do that.