Grief is the currency of the body. You grieve with your torso, every organ, your sweat, and the heat you feel in your skull. You grieve for years, then months, and eventually, if you’re lucky, for select minutes throughout your day. You can grieve anything. Grief is the great equalizer, greater than death which simply is. Grief is the great teacher, teaches us empathy and teaches us virtue, and teaches us the limits of our humanity. There is a language for this human ritual of mourning, and few in hip-hop know the language of grief and its many tongues quite like hip-hop duo, underground vanguards, Atmosphere.
From 1997’s Overcast! with Spawn to Mi Vida Local, released in 2018, Atmosphere have learned and relearned, taught and re-taught, the language of grief. Their discography, the endless string of singles, EPs and albums, has always been concerned with pain, and the process by which we overcome. But this is not a piece about overcoming. This is a piece about grieving, and what it means to sit in the filth of an emotion. The language of grief is mutable and thrilling; it’s a language we can all come to speak regardless of how we structure our lives.
I have a hard time accepting the present. I know life doesn’t ask—I’ve written about it plenty—but still I struggle to shake the feeling that things are simply not supposed to be this way. This denial, among other things, is my pithy refusal to speak the language of grief that Slug so eloquently spins across decades of emo rap anthems. The language of grief is knowing and harsh, not delicate, and completely rattled. When spoken in broken phrases, it can look banal and impulsive, but at its most enthralling, it lends itself to some of the most poetic verses in music.
Working through the language of grief is how Slug could spit “I hope your new boyfriend gets cancer in his dick” in the early 2000s, and spit “I've got receipts made of scar tissue” in 2018. Side by side, we see that while Slug is still learning to talk the talk in the 2000s, eventually, he gets there. Slug goes from grieving by saddling his pain on another to accepting his pain as part of his life.
In that breath, Slug’s writing takes us through our most childish impulses (The Lucy Ford EPs, God Loves Ugly) and works to unearth our deepest anxieties (The Family Sign, Southsiders, Mi Vida Local). The growth is striking, as Slug learns that the only way out is through.
Across their discography, Atmosphere have evolved to give the language of grief a definitive shape. While we’re no longer wishing ill on exes’ new boyfriends, those phrases are as essential to moving on as more eloquent talks of scar tissue.
Such is the brilliance of Atmosphere. The group is above nothing. Slug is not better than any of his listeners, nor is he too good for his emotions. When he runs from his pain and speaks a broken language, when we get him at his most childish (“Guns and Cigarettes”), we are still endeared to him because we’ve all taken to grief with a swollen tongue. The shape of grief here is ugly, but it is still vital to our growth.
Atmosphere’s discography teaches us how to grieve, and how to grieve well. There is productivity to the verb, and a right and a wrong way to go about feeling better. Right: accept that you will grieve poorly, accept that you will have outbursts, accept that you might pen something in the vein of: “So while I wait well I'mma pass out and taste this curb / And she attacked with flirts, smacked my nerves.” While there is plenty to critique about these lyrics off “Free or Dead,” there is also much to learn from Slug and his wounded displays.
On the Lucy Ford EPs, we hear a much younger and more incensed Slug. We hear a Slug who has begun to grieve and does not yet know the language. He speaks in pieces, and we see that here, with him dealing with his problems through escapist means only. We see him blaming women for his shortcomings, even though he is a known enabler.
All of this is crucial to the process, for if you do not do wrong, you can never do right. The language is forming on his tongue, still, and we get a line like “I need release, and I don't think I'm a find it in between your legs” as the self-awareness begins to percolate.
Though Slug demystified pain on God Loves Ugly, he still had outburst after outburst on the album, proving to us he has yet to move on from Lucy, and from his vices. Later, on Seven’s Travels, we get ever-closer to speaking the language of grief in full. There is more empathy (“Suicide Girls”), there is more self-awareness (“Gotta Lotta Walls”), and there is learning that love and loss are lessons not punishments (“Los Angeles”). Though Seven’s is more of a collection of songs that have little to do with each other than a narrative album, we can see the through line being the growth Slug undergoes as he continues grieving every heartbreak that haunts him, and makes his writing shine.
Yet, no song on Seven’s showcases Slug really speaking the language of grief quite like “Trying to Find a Balance,” where he spits: “In the days of Kings and Queens I was a jester / Treat me like a God or they treat me like a leper / You see me move back and forth between both / I'm trying to find a balance.”
This hook is crucial in that it might be the first time Slug speaks the language uninhibited. Or, more simply, it is one of the first times Slug identifies himself as the problem in his life without turning the situation into a joke. He begins to see grief as a project, not as an attractive state of being. No one is doomed in perpetuity, and Slug realizes this, putting himself to work to feel better.
With Seven’s we speak grief for the first time in full; we work to better ourselves. Two years later, on You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, Slug is at it again. Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty.
On “Panic Attack,” Slug recounts how we use pills to solve our problems, and while this is an antiquated take on medication, we can applaud him for his new-found stance against self-medication, considering especially how liquored up he’s been for the past eight years—and will continue to be.
On “Pour Me Another,” Slug breaks down more of his mistakes. He is getting as self-effacing as can be, rapping: “It goes, pour me another, so I could forget you now / Pour me another, so I could come let you down / Pour me another, so I can remember how / True that I am to this addiction of you.” He is naming his demons and while we’re still drinking away our problems, the childish impulses of Lucy Ford are behind us.
Slug has learned that a staple of grief is naming your pain, and though he still wants to drown in it, by 2005, we’ve still come a long way.
Though Seven’s is home to the first time Slug speaks grief without taking back his admissions, You Can’t Imagine is home to the first time Slug speaks the language of grief to touching effect. “Little Man” features a verse dedicated to Slug’s father, which rifles through his anger and confusion, arriving at a place of acceptance and appreciation for the lessons learned.
“I'm afraid of my fate, don't wanna turn out like you / I've never hit a woman / I won't do coke / And for that alone I love you and I want to thank you, old man,” Slug raps to close the verse.
Slug speaks the language of grief so well here because he does not attempt to escape his flaws. He sees himself in his father, and they share the same misgivings (“All these women want to hurt me and I just don't have the patience”), but instead of turning those faults into a glib remark, Slug faces them head-on.
On the second verse of “Little Man,” Slug is grieving his father and himself, digesting that pain, but he is also hopeful, and that fine note is what makes him versed in the language. He mourns his father and his romantic affairs, but as on “Trying to Find a Balance,” he knows he is not doomed forever. He is going through, refusing to remain static.
Two more years go by, more heartbreak goes on, and we arrive at Sad Clown Bad Winter, one of several Sad Clown Bad Dub EPs, wherein Slug pens the thoughtful “Ha, This One Is About Alcohol Too.” Over a plunky instrumental, Slug brings us deep into the bar scene, recounting the ire of strangers and showing us a lesson in empathy. Though we are removed from Slug’s problems, we still see him grieving for others.
Of course, his decision to enable everyone at the bar to drink away their sorrows reminds us that we’re not quite at a healthy place, but what we do see is Slug having the capacity to feel others’ pain. In this communal moment, we can learn that grief does not have to be an insular thing, and that relying on your support system is just as integral to speaking the language of grief as the words themselves.
It is on When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold when Slug finally comes through and understands what it means to grieve and grieve well. Writing vignettes about the potential lives of Minnesota strangers, he takes everything he learned from writing “Little Man” and the communal lesson of “Ha, This One Is About Alcohol Too,” and turns them into a full-blown album.
The record is a beautiful display of what it means to ache for a stranger, and what it means to speak the language of grief in earnest. Slug is no longer hiding from the pain of any color, he is embracing and living through life, through these tales, and the ending result is “Yesterday,” a song dedicated to Slug’s late father.
“Yesterday” is the peak of grief-eloquence. The irreverence and ignorance of the early 2000s is gone, as is the substance abuse of the mid-2000s. All we have are Slug and his emotions, and the way grief sneaks up on you and rattles you even at your most placid of times. Instead of reacting with an outburst, the tone of “Yesterday” is peaceful. Slug is brimming with acceptance, the track is a moment of coming to terms with loss, not lashing out against it. This is how you grieve, ultimately, by accepting it as part of life.
From here, we get the first real iteration of “Dad Rap” on The Family Sign in 2011. Slug is no longer interested in lambasting women or toiling over mending a broken heart. He is more concerned with, well, his family.
Grief is not so much absent from The Family Sign as it is sublimated. There is no time to be in mourning when you have people to tend to. Then we have 2014’s Southsiders, wherein grief is present (“Kanye West”) but sublimation takes hold once again. The record was written because Slug simply wanted to enjoy the pleasure of writing. Finding your joy at the center of your grief, as you can gather, is essential.
The shape of Slug’s grief changes for good on 2016’s Fishing Blues and is cemented on Mi Vida Local; no longer mourning lost loves and alcohol abuse, Slug is now grieving over the state of the country. “Things ain't been the same since Trayvon, shit / Things ain't been the same since Reagan, wait” he spits on “Seismic Waves.” And two years later, he will go on to rap: “I might be the last generation of grandparents.” The final phase of speaking grief, aside from realizing there are problems outside of yourself, is to speak solutions.
All of this is why Mi Vida Local is Atmosphere’s most urgent album to date. Time is running out to right the wrongs of the country, and everywhere Slug goes, he sees people full of discomfort, as he is full of discomfort. He grieves all of this on the album, but in his speech, he sounds up to the challenge.
“I did not sign up to be a tourist of this shit,” he told me in 2018. “I’m not a tourist, but I’m trying to take a picture of it for the tourists so they don’t have to come up in here. Don’t come in here and take pictures and leave. You can have this picture, and if you feel it, cool! Get involved and do something.”
Nothing is ever supposed to be anything, but instead of living in denial or lashing out at what hurts us, we are better off accepting the cards we are dealt and learning how to work with them. That is the ultimate lesson in casing Atmosphere’s discography.
Grief is a feature of life, not our enemy. The sooner we take this to be true, the sooner we get to feeling better. It takes Slug over a decade on wax to come to that conclusion, but come to it he does. Now he is emboldened to speak his grief and take action, and with his discography in hand, we can do the same.