Atmosphere finally made a good record—again. To fans’ delight, the duo’s seventh studio album, Whenever, surprise-dropped on December 13, 2019. To end the year, and to end another sterling decade for the godfathers of underground hip-hop, Slug and Ant, delivered an album of “blessed-to-be-alive” raps.
On Whenever, Slug makes it a point to love life, to savor his existence, and to fall in love with minutia all over again. Too, Ant produces some of his most lithe instrumentals since 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons. The pair sound happy—happy to be working together, and happy to be working at all. Whenever is more than a sigh of relief from two artists who could comfortably rest on their laurels. The album is a breath of thin winter air, meant to soothe us as much as it’s meant to tighten our chests and get us ready for the next gulp of oxygen.
I called Slug on a cold day in December to discuss all the ins and outs of Whenever, what it feels like to be happy, and how we define success. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
A surprise album, huh. Did you feel like Beyoncé?
I highly doubt Beyoncé kept herself up until four in the morning looking at Twitter. So, I guess, no. I probably have never felt like Beyoncé. I felt like anybody who tries to pretend they don’t feed off of validation, but truly does feed off of validation.
That’s great of you to admit because I think all people need validation at all times, no matter where they’re at in their career.
I don’t wanna speak for Beyoncé, but I know my relationship with validation… It’s not the same as when I was younger. It’s probably a little more relaxed, but it’s still a thing. You still want to know if people can understand or relate, or appreciate, or hate. You still wanna know if what you’re doing translates. Often I see people get defensive and say, “Awh, the public didn’t get it. They didn’t understand it!” That’s bullshit. The truth is, it didn’t connect. That doesn’t mean you did it wrong; it just didn’t connect.
As an artist, putting out music, when I see people say super nice things, I’m guarded. I don’t allow it to go to my head. When they say super negative shit, I have thick skin. I’m not gonna let it knock me down. I understand, now, what the relationship is. I’ve even learned how to use the stuff people didn’t like to enable what they did like. Let’s say one of my albums is a loser; it only makes the winners stand out that much more. It’s a weird relationship I have with validation, but my validation doesn’t come in the form of people patting me on the back. My validation comes in the form of people noticing. Did you notice? Whether or not you liked it isn’t as important as whether or not you noticed. Because once you stop noticing, I’m fucked.
Last October, you told me you were “Full of discomfort.” Where are you at now?
Oh, that’s interesting. I have some discomfort, but… I’m feeling kind of optimistic. I have had such a prolific and profound year. It’s erased a lot of the shit prior. I don’t know how to compare it to where I was, because I don’t remember where I was. There’s been so much happening, and I’ve been too busy to be sad. I’m still scared. I’m assuming I’ve been scared for a while because that comes with being responsible for small people. But I’m also trying to make the most of it.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that it could all end—I’m just trying to live like that. My wife has said a few profound things to me over the past 12 months, to make sure I’m presenting a version of myself to the children that they can model. I want them to be fucking fearless. I’m pretty happy, too, and I’m not supposed to admit that because I’ve built a whole cardboard kingdom out of being upset. I’m not that upset right now. I don’t know if I was upset a year ago, either. I’m just trying to make it all sound right.
You also said, “I don’t really know if peace is a real thing,” but songs like “Postal Lady” and “Love Each Other” feel peaceful to me. Are you starting to believe?
I don’t know if I believe in peace as much as I’m… It always comes back down to control. Trying to use the word peace to articulate it is a little awkward to me because what peace implies is not even a realistic concept. But you can control how you react [to the universe], and that is a better explanation. I’m glad you’re making me say this out loud because maybe there’s a song in there. Controlling how I react in my environment because I can make it worse, or I can do my best to make it as peaceful for myself as possible.
Looking at the cover of Whenever, it’s either a moment of taking flight or a moment of coming back to earth. Which is it, and what does such a moment mean to you?
I didn’t see it as either. I don’t know if I even put myself in the picture of the cover. When [the label] asked me, “When do you wanna put this out?” I was like, “I don’t know, whenever.” From there, I started to piece together what I wanted it to look and feel like. I didn’t even have a sequence at that point. I went back to the lab and was like, “Oh, that’s the title.” This works for me because it doesn’t speak to what the concept is. I didn’t wanna give it a title that gave away what the album was about. I’m tired of that.
To me, the cover speaks to what me and Anthony have been doing and [how] we’ve applied ourselves. We haven’t followed a real schedule or any real rules. We’ll hit the road whenever. I’ll put out a project when I’m not due to put out a project. We’ve been doing this on our terms for so long. So I thought that was a cute title for it. I can’t tell you if the plane is landing or taking off. I don’t know if it’s doing either. Is it a plane? Is it God looking down on the humans?
A lot of people never even get to leave their hometown. You ever been to Greece?
Me neither. A lot of people will never, ever get to do that. What does that picture mean to them? Does that picture represent a privilege? To me, it was about travel. All of these songs came from different spaces. These weren’t supposed to be an album. Initially, it was supposed to be a soundtrack to a TV show. We were approached in spring of 2018 by a writer who was like, “Hey, I’m working with a producer, and we’re making a TV show for a network. We want you guys to make the soundtrack.” I was like, “Fuck, yes!”
They gave me a couple of scripts, so I could see what the vibe of their show was, and I was like… This is great! I could write whatever I want. I could say shit I could never say on an Atmosphere record. I could be as corny or gross as I want. Atmosphere is self-aware and takes itself seriously, but here, I was facing a situation where those rules [didn’t] apply. Over time, the deal fell through, only because when the lawyers from the network got involved, they wanted full ownership. I’ve never given anybody ownership of anything. I can’t do that. When it was all finished, it was amicable.
That makes so much sense because Whenever reminds me a lot of Lemons in the way you’re telling these isolated stories about the minutiae of life.
I never even considered that, but you saying it, that makes sense. When I was making Lemons, I was not under pressure to make music. The only pressure I had was to enjoy myself and keep myself occupied. That’s how it’s been for the last year. I’ve made so much music in the last 12 months; it’s out of control. I’ve kept myself busy by being productive because the unproductive Sean can get unhealthy.
I love “Postal Lady” for all the small details. “Put some Cheerios in the Sean bowl” is a precious line. Did you feel a sense of comfort returning as you worked on this sort of ode to life?
In hindsight, I’ll be able to know how effective this one was for me. Mi Vida Local was effective. I’m not sure how therapeutic this was as far as actual words. But what was therapeutic about this one, was more so the technique of writing. That does speak to Lemons. I wasn’t working through a ton of problems on Lemons. I had to go back and include a song on Lemons, that was “Me.” I put that one there, because how could I put out an album that doesn’t at least look in the mirror once?
With this one, the writing’s got lots of looks in the mirror. But it wasn’t about looking in the mirror and figuring out what I see. I read this thing a long time ago, and I can’t remember who said it, but they said there are two types of artist. One is the artist where it’s all about the final product, and the other kind is the artist where it’s all about the journey. I am trying to fucking figure out how I’m not both. I go through phases of being one or the other, but I want to be both at the same damn time.
With this particular album, it might be a step towards that. A lot of the material on here, it wasn’t important how people saw it. I was seeing them as the first thing you hear when the credits roll. It wasn’t about people seeing them as a completed project. This one is all about the practice of creation. A few of these songs were puzzles. How do I make a song, not to make a hit, but so I could turn to Anthony and say, “Look what I did!”
On “The Ceiling,” it sounds like you feel as if you’re battling the clock. Do you worry you haven’t made your mark on hip-hop, or your family life, etc.?
I know I’ve made my mark on whatever you wanna call it. I don’t know how to classify it. I did my thing. When I stand next to 100 people, I don’t feel insignificant, but also… I don’t feel like I’m special. If you were to go up in the air as high as the picture on the cover of the album, you’re not gonna see which person I am. You’re not even in space, but you still wouldn’t be able to figure out which person I was because I’d blend in with the other people. Do not give yourself more credit than you deserve. There are a few people on this planet who are making huge impacts. Just because you are getting recognized for something, doesn’t mean you’re one of those people.
I’m not allowed to gauge my impact. You can. A fan can. A hater can. My wife can. But the minute I gauge my impact? You’re going into some self-hater territory. It’s dangerous to have opinions of yourself in that regard. With that said, I do think my name is in “the book,” but what does that mean? I don’t know. I’ve been doing this forever, and I don’t know what success would feel like at this point. Success is that I’m still allowed to fucking do it. It’s not about the money or getting your name in the history book. It’s about the life you’re currently living, and how long you can maintain that.
The minute it all goes sour or something happens to me, does that mean my success is done? I don’t think so. [“The Ceiling”] is about the feeling of not knowing what’s around the corner, but going anyway. I’m still going, but it’s me admitting to myself I’m not gonna pretend I know what success is.
Does the idea of legacy scare you? Just that feeling of leaving something behind necessarily meaning you’ll one day be gone?
I’m already in the place where I feel like a legacy artist. People wanna hear a lot of the old stuff, but they also let me make new albums and perform the new stuff, too. A lot of my heroes, nobody wanna hear their new shit. You wanna hear the old jams, the bangers, etc.. We’ve already reached that point; we’re lucky to be able to squeeze a few new songs in every show. I’m happy to give [the old songs] to them. I wrote those songs; I stand by them. I don’t perform the ones I don’t like. So, no, it doesn’t scare me. And I’m not scared to die. I feel bad for everybody that gets left behind that’s gonna miss me, but…
I don’t know what happens after death. It might be way worse than life. I do want to live and be here for as long as possible, but when the time comes to go… Okay! I’m happy with what I leave behind. Here’s the deal, man, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve made my share of fucking bad decisions. I’ve also tried to correct those things or balance them by putting good into the world as well. I’m at a place in my life where I’m content with the balance of things. Does that mean I’m done doing good things? No! You have to keep going. As long as I’m [continually] trying to manifest positivity, then I feel like, at any point, if it all gets taken away, my legacy is fine.