Midwest hip-hop trio Atmosphere have been saddled with an unfortunate title: emo-rap. Atmosphere's mouthpiece, Slug, is prone to writing odes to his broken heart, so the title isn't exactly unwarranted. He's spent entire albums lamenting a mythical muse/monster named Lucy Ford. And Atmosphere are something of a boom-bap Weezer circa Pinkerton, so I'm not going to split genre hairs.
Seven's Travels is Atmosphere's fourth, and most adventurous record yet. Slug's on-point fury doesn't let up, while producer Ant employs a more dynamic sound for his MC's weepy-boy fire. Sped-up soul samples and chewy guitar licks dominate a once-bare sound. Unfortunately, Slug's ideas are scattered all over the album. We're supposed to believe this is a concept album following a man named Seven through life strife. No such luck, conceptually. He's clearly getting something off his chest here, but the fractured vision highlights the album's bangers and weakens its missteps.
On the opener of Seven's Travels, the ringing, cathartic "Trying to Find a Balance," Slug starts the self-deprecation train rolling with "Atmosphere finally made a good record...yeah right, that shit almost sounds convincing." Sonically, the ominous swirl and the potent vocal samples make Slug's histrionics more persuasive than they should. But the song's pretentious chorus is full of vitriol and lacking in self-awareness: "In the days of Kings and Queens I was a jester. Treat me like a God or treat me like a leper." Maybe they've got a point with that emo-rap thing.
Following that masturbatory rage, something truer and deeper emerges. The next song, "Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know," harnesses the same wrath while utilizing a ridiculous flow and a sharp bird-as-heartbreaking-woman metaphor. Sometimes Slug's ferocity is overwrought. On "Bird," it resonates honestly.
This emotional buildup sets the stage for a schizophrenic record. "Reflections" is a cryfest delivered with a smile; "Lift Her Pull Her" is an elegant fable of botched love; "National Disgrace" is a folksy treatise on famous assholes. The tumbleweed whistlin' on "National Disgrace" is the sort of perfect musical touch that marks Ant's remarkable growth since last year's rudimentary God Loves Ugly. It doesn't hurt that Slug's as focused there as he's been since 1998's God's Bathroom Floor.
Seven's Travels' best song, "Cats Vans Bags," is the most dissimilar to the rest. Featuring fellow Minnesotan Rhymesayer Brother Ali (whose brilliant debut Shadows on the Sun dropped this year), the song's expanding orb of a beat is blazing. Ali roars through his woozy lines: "Shoot through as a unit with the best of my crew, pumpin' elegies and memories too, my head's killin' me, oooh, stomach's empty and my bladder is full."
On Seven's Travels, as on so many emo records, it's not the music behind the message that makes you cringe. Ant's beats bang with a newfound confidence. It's the dramatics that are whimpered with authority. Slug can't get away from that song-and-dance routine. Atmosphere are clearly at the top of the emo-rap game; it's just not necessarily a game true schoolers will want to play.