Review Summary: A return to form or more of the same? They might be different ways of saying the same thing, but in this case beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s a generally accepted notion that most rappers don’t age well, especially those coming from the more indie/underground side of the genre – see the recent output from Common, Sage Francis and Murs for evidence. Slug has been no exception to this theory over the course of the past 5 years, often struggling to recapture the presence and delivery on top of subject matter that made him so relevant and relatable in the first place. On Atmosphere’s last official album he adopted the approach of making each song into its own story, the problem being that each tale was only surface-deep – there was nothing really there that required any in-depth analysis or metaphorical understanding, just stories for the sake of stories. His introspective raps about understanding women and life-purpose became stale instead of fresh and the latter half of the 2000s found Slug searching for inspiration; basically, he’s run out of ideas. Sadly, there isn’t much happening on this latest release to change the state of affairs for Rhymesayers’ resident leading man.
To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy
finds the emcee simultaneously pulling inspiration from past successes while attempting to mature -- without becoming irrelevant. In some cases, like The Major Leagues, Hope and The Loser Wins, it works. Slug’s urban perspective on the average life comes across as genuine as it did on Lucy Ford, while tackling the subject matter from the viewpoint of a wily veteran who’s experienced life and is willing to share wisdom gained. Sure, the rhymes are still largely uninspired, but for a rapper whose discography dates back to the mid-90s – what should we really expect" Slug’s main problem here is delivery – about half the album feels like remade versions of old Atmosphere tracks. Compare the flow in The Best Day to Sunshine from Sad Clown Bad Summer
, The Number None to When Life Gives You Lemons
’ Yesterday or Until the Nipple’s Gone to Panic Attack from You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having
. Scalp even sounds like a slowed-down Hair (off God Loves Ugly
) – right down to a direct reference at the end of the song. This all plays into the notion that Slug is suffering from a case of writer’s block, and while the lack of inspiration is disappointing, there are enough strong moments to keep the disc interesting and listenable.
Fortunately for Atmosphere, the production sounds more fresh and inspired than anything they’ve released since 2003’s Seven’s Travels
. Producer Ant takes the reggae and blues-influenced motif of the last two Brother Ali albums, combines it with the live instrumentation and coffee shop vibe of When Life Gives You Lemons…
and then filters it through the dark, hazy lens of 1990s hip hop classics like Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
and The Low End Theory
. The resulting sound is actually somewhat breathtaking and more than makes up for the moments when Slug’s flow gets a bit monotonous. Guitars (both electric and acoustic), keys and upright bass again play a large role in the record’s sound and serve to differentiate it from the majority of hip hop albums being released in 2010 (new joint from The Roots notwithstanding).
To All My Friends…
seems intended as a return-to-form for the indie rap legends, from the moniker of “The Atmosphere EPs” (see Ford, Lucy) to the hopefully intentional similarities to Atmosphere’s older material in the tracklist – and in this regard the album's a success. True to its title, the record is essentially a thank you to long-time fans and is worth picking up for anyone who’s enjoyed their previous output. Plus, the beats are ridiculous.