Does maturity mean that you can't be any fun anymore? Minnesotan emotional rap torchbearers Atmosphere's first album for three years certainly makes a case for the argument, introspective even by the standards of a duo no strangers to grafting invasively personal musings to an intelligent boom-bap beat. Yet it's also testament to another old chestnut: with age comes wisdom, in this case allowing a view of the big picture.
The Family Sign is certainly their most broadly existential offering to date. Enveloping the full spectrum of life with gritty minutiae, aforementioned maturity is chiefly evident in a comparative lack of characteristic self-deprecating humour from ordinarily smart-alec rhymer Slug. Continuing to reach beyond the MC/DJ format, though, an extended band of guitarist and keyboardist lends extra bluesy shades of barroom melancholia to Slug's already downtrodden musings.
Whether first-hand or projected narratives, parental issues logically linger in The Family Sign's heart. Bad Bad Daddy depicts a beer-swilling failed father, only threatening to spill into simplistic caricature. The Last to Say, on the other hand, is sensitive, eloquent and jarringly brutal on domestic abuse, a topic so often tackled by left-leaning rap peers (most notably, and repeatedly, Brooklyn contemporary El-P).
It's difficult to ignore that a significant amount of The Family Sign emits a passing impression that Slug plucked several emotive subjects from a hat, then challenged himself to use them as a writing framework. There is a deal of genuine personal pain in Became, however, supposedly a sideways tribute to fallen Rhymesayers labelmate and friend Eyedea, who died last year from an accidental drug overdose. It's a tinkling ivories-opened tale related as a search for a lost pal seemingly carried away by wolves on a camping trip. Whatever the inspiration, the closing lines reverberate with regret, sadness and gobfuls of scattershot ire into the bargain.
Death and domestic abuse dispensed with, I Don't Need Brighter Days comes closest to the real crux: as documenters of emotionally-testing experiences on the underbelly of lower-middle-class America, Atmosphere have refined what they do best into an unrepentant mantra for life.