Upon announcing their latest album, The Family Sign, Atmosphere revealed that this project would feature Slug “metaphorically touching on themes of fatherhood, loss, love, disappointment and jubilation[.]” It seems a natural progression, given intensely personal songs like Slug’s ode to his deceased father, “Yesterday,” in addition to previous detailed narratives in which the Minneapolis emcee replaced himself in favor of a fictional character. As such, The Family Sign stays true to its name, focusing heavily on interpersonal relationships and the gamut of emotions and complexities that inform them.

After a heavy, guitar-laden intro, Slug continues to lay serious claim to Hip Hop’s storytelling throne (all respect due to Slick Rick and Common pre-2007) on “The Last To Say,” a chilling and heartbreaking tale of spousal abuse:

“As far back as he cares to remember / He used to see the old man lose his temper / And momma’s pretty face’d catch it all / On a regular basis the nest would fall / But he was always safe from dad’s rage / Cuz momma’d sacrifice in his place / Two dozen years of the blood, sweat and tears / Avoiding the mirror, losing her hair for the fear / She never left him, stayed inside / He beat her ass up until the day that he died / In fact, the biggest beating was the day that he died / Cuz now it’s too late for her to make a new life / She gets to mourn for the touch of a punch / Won’t ever admit that she ain’t clutching at much / Someday she’ll die, it still won’t be done / The anger lives on through their son.”

Tales like these are far too often overlooked in Hip Hop, and rarely are they told in such a way that puts the listener right in the midst of the story. Ant helps set the scene as well, as the lamenting guitar and keys punctuate the morose subject matter. “Became” is another foray into storytelling, but this time it’s much more abstract, allowing the listener to project their own impressions onto the subject matter. “Just For Show” is more lively—though by no means lighthearted—with organs and guitars carrying as much sarcasm as Slug’s delivery.

“She’s Enough” is one of The Family Sign‘s few missteps. Though it’s perhaps a relief to those yearning for a bit of levity on the project, the production and hook are both an absolute mess. Think of the song as “You” with awful execution. “Bad Bad Daddy” fits the album’s aesthetic much better, but also should have been left on the cutting room floor. Here, Sluggo assumes the role of a despicable father, but his delivery gets too “nyah-nyah,” even considering the subject matter.

The project quickly rebounds with “Who I’ll Never Be,” a touching ode to unrequited love. “Your Name Here” unmistakably serves as a sequel to “The Loser Wins,” which appeared on To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blood Holy. Whereas the latter was an angry conversation about learning when to cut ties with friends, the former takes place years later, where Slug runs into the aforementioned friend and has had time to cool off from the emotion of the situation.

The Family Sign is a heavy, moody album. There’s not nearly as much humor here as with Atmosphere’s previous two releases, but that doesn’t make it any less of a quality addition to the group’s catalogue. Slug and Ant are, once again, in near-perfect concert with regard to their vision for what the album should sound like, and what sort of thoughts and emotions it should convey and evoke. Further, it’s fascinating to see Slug settling completely into his role of narrator—one that will assuredly continue to inspire awe for albums to come.

Purchase The Family Sign by Atmosphere