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The Family Sign Brad Sanders , August 3rd, 2011 09:27

Hip hop is young enough as a genre that some of its earliest key practitioners are only just now entering their forties, and there's not really a big enough sample size to accurately measure the impact that being of a certain age has on a rapper's music. At 38, Atmosphere's resident lyricist Sean Daley (better known as Slug) has just offered a new argument against people creeping toward middle age being allowed to spit with the young jacks. The Family Sign is the product of the recent birth of the rapper's child, his desire to write a record paying tribute to the people that he loves, and, one can only assume, late night sessions spinning Everlast's 'What It's Like' single on repeat while smoking prodigious amounts of terrible marijuana.

It's not enough to say that Slug and his Atmosphere co-conspirer Ant are out of touch with the rap world. If that were the case, 2008's full-length When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold likely would have been awful as well, and it wasn't. In fact, very little of Atmosphere's back catalogue is. But The Family Sign commits a few of hip hop's cardinal sins and doesn't provide nearly enough justification for doing so. It's endlessly sentimental, bordering on saccharine. It abuses natural guitar and piano, a direct result of Ant and Slug hiring on touring musicians Nate 'The Guitar Man' Collis and Erick Anderson as full-time members. Worst of all, in a genre driven far more by lyrics and flow than any other part of the listening experience, its rhymes are terrible, its metaphors daft, and its delivery too slow and sing-talky to even allow Slug's rapping to be impressive from a technical standpoint.

In fairness to Atmosphere with regards to the sentimentality argument, the few relatively angry moments on the record are among the most embarrassing. 'Your Name Here' contains what may be the gentlest rap insult of all time in "The truth is, I don't miss you," and 'Bad Bad Daddy' is apparently Slug's impression of someone with a tough-guy streak. Where Tyler, the Creator's rage, however impotent, sounds legitimately furious and Immortal Technique – at age 33, no less – regularly offers piss and vinegar sentiments that could burn a hole in the side of the White House, the Atmosphere rapper sounds like he's barely trying hard enough to put any inflection in his voice. At least the sappy songs about taking care of your family and loving the people who love you back are genuine.

Genuine, indeed, but still mostly dreadful. It's not that hip hop can't stand for some well-placed tenderness from time to time – what would Tech's Revolutionary Vol. 2 be without 'You Never Know', or even Atmosphere's own Seven's Travels without 'Lifter Puller'? – it's just that The Family Sign takes things too far. A rap record tied together by the theme of familial love might not a bad idea on principle, but Atmosphere's excessively schmaltzy take on the concept is too omnipresent to be enjoyable. There's no question that where Slug is in his life right now – newborn kid, successful career, picturesque marriage – has negatively affected his music. Rap was a genre built on frustration and misfortune, an outlet for creative, discontented youths to rage against society in a new and interesting way. Slug has lost both his youth and his discontent, and unfortunately, it seems as though his creativity has followed.

It isn't fair to put all the blame on Slug, though. Ant, the man responsible for the group's beats, is equally at fault. This is boring, retreaded music, almost from the top down. The addition of a full-time guitarist especially has dug a sonic hole for Atmosphere, with Ant's compositions feeling increasingly like they're obligated to include some riffs and leads to justify the Guitar Man's presence. What results is music that too often recalls Carlos Santana's ill-conceived late-'90s forays into rap collaborations, that aforementioned Everlast track, and at its worst, even some of the mellower moments of turn-of-the-decade rap-rock.

It's not all bad, though. Both when they return to the narrative-style songwriting of their earlier career ('Became' and 'Millennium Dodo') and when they fully and unabashedly embrace the guitar-and-piano sentimentality ethos of the album (the closing one-two punch of 'Something So' and 'My Notes' – although the latter may have the album's worst lyric with "I heard a bird cry/It was pathetic"), Atmosphere manage to drag a few enjoyable moments out of a mostly banal album. It seems, then, that their crime with The Family Sign may have been as much an unwillingness to wholeheartedly commit to something as a simple lack of inspiration or failure to connect with an audience. Whatever the parts of the cocktail, it led to a disappointing effort by a generally consistent rap group and one that we can only hope will be reconciled for in the near future. Of course, Slug and Ant will have both turned 40 by the time another LP will drop, so perhaps it's best to keep expectations low.

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