Coming off of the success of “God Loves Ugly” and “Seven’s Travels,” Atmosphere became one of underground hip-hop’s premier groups. There was a lot of controversy as the duo transitioned from their “Overcast” and “Lucy EP” days into a wider level of recognition. By the end of the noughties, the group would be one of hip-hop’s matured success stories, but there is beauty in the transition’s details. “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having” is getting a vinyl re-release to celebrate its 10th year anniversary. So, it’s time to recap an often overlooked album.
“Ugly” and “Seven’s” recalls emotional cues from earlier works, but there was always a hint that Atmosphere would evolve in terms of scale, scope and style. After all, that is what makes “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having” so damn interesting, if not at least a little bit unfortunate; at the time of its release, the album got relatively mixed reaction from Minnesota hip-hop heads. Many felt the production was too large and it’s lyrical content to straightforward and literal by Atmosphere’s standards circa 2005.
But to any who may still feel this way, take a chance to note why “You Can’t Imagine” is one of the duo’s finest efforts.
For an album that proceeded some of the group’s most conceptual work—“Seven’s” is spelled possessively for a reason, mind—it’s straightforward nature is both refreshing and deceptive. This an album with some of producer Ant’s best work with the group. “You can’t Imagine” defines an album that blends from-the-basement samples with live instrumentation nearly seamlessly—props to some really great Violin work by Jessy Green on “Musical Chairs.”
Smart production choices mixed with a typically high standard of audio quality seem deceptively simple. But, for an album that’s accused of being simple all too often has an incredible amount of depth. Hip-hop heads have a chance to pick through samples and subtle nods to previous Atmosphere tracks—as example, see a slightly more obvious reference to “Flesh” off of “God Loves Ugly,” or any sample from the “Minnesota sound” R&B and soul musicians from yesteryear. Even if the listener doesn’t go out their way to find these Easter eggs, the theory within the sample creates incredibly attractive music with depth and personality.
Reflective of that principle, Slug’s lyricism is intelligently deceptive. Even on more basic tracks such as “Bam,” or the battle worthy “Watch Out,” he is at his most lyrically fierce. It’s not without its thoughtful moments, but he presents some of his most cutthroat delivery, reminiscent of “Trying to Find a Balance” of off “Seven’s.”
But, to say the album being “battle worthy” is selling it short. Slug delivers a beautifully worded track in “Angelface,” keeping his storytelling props in focus with the tragic “That Night,” and his reflection of the responsibilities of being a father, son and individual on “Little Man.” There is an anger and confusion in those tracks, but not without definitive recollection. His personality is just as well-defined as any other album, but the songwriting is leaner and more tangible than the heralded “God Loves Ugly.”
With all of that in mind, is it inherently terrible that a group known for being lyrically moody and darkly produced release an album as attractive as “You Can’t Imagine”?
Of course not.
The duo has never created art for art’s sake. What gives Slug his edge as an emcee is his vulnerability mixed with enthusiasm and humorous ease; mixed with Ant’s instrumentation-first production style, their music easily matches many palettes. It’s obvious that after the success of their previous work, they were looking to expand their audience. But, who can blame them? Rhymesayers was becoming a larger label every passing year. Brother Ali, P.O.S. and I Self Devine would release their debuts on the label in the year’s preceding the album’s release. The foundation of what the label would become is strikingly snapshot with this album.
It’s just gratifying to know that an album that has clever song writing and full-sounding production that simply sounds great, not to mention a great sense of humor, can help bridge the gap from a local, but popular, hip-hop group to achieve a wider audience; especially with this caliber of quality.
And that’s exactly what happened: a couple years later, the duo released their defining song in “Sunshine,” and a year after that would release their highest charting album; the critically favored “When Life Gives You Lemons.” As mentioned earlier, there is beauty in the details of Atmosphere’s evolution into one of hip-hop’s great matured successes. But, to reach that maturity, an often unappreciated gem was created.