Atmosphere - Sad Clown Bad Dub II

Atmosphere’s best record isn’t what you think it is.

Additional Info

9.7

ALBUM: Sad Clown Bad Dub II

ARTIST: Atmosphere

2000

Hip-Hop/Rap

The first Sad Clown Bad Dub was exactly what it claims to be: a disorganized mess of songs, some live, some haphazardly recorded as demos. Slug’s wit was sharp; the sound quality wasn’t. In the years since, the Sad Clown series has come a long way. The thirteenth and most recent installment is a beautifully mastered live show from Minneapolis’ First Avenue; the prior four make up the noted ‘seasons’ series, some of Atmosphere’s finest and most widely circulated music. But back in 2000, there was no infrastructure to guarantee seven million views on a non-album single. There was just Slug, Ant, a four track, and “the sole intention to eat better on the road”. Keep in mind, this was a side project—not even a project, really, just a collection of cuts that wouldn’t make Lucy Ford. There was no promotional cycle, no video, no push at radio. So why is Sad Clown Bad Dub II the best Atmosphere record?

The answer is buried toward the end of the penultimate “Inside Outsider”. Energetic and precise for most of the record, Slug is wearied and beaten, grasping for the ledge, when he strikes upon the thesis: “I can’t play passive…truth hurts/I wanna rock the boat, but I wanna rock you, first”. It’s a simple credo, and one that the group would go on to employ throughout their remarkable run in the 2000s. But what makes Sad Clown Bad Dub II so striking is its commitment to this duality, the tension between shocking the world and shocking 150-capacity bars in Boise. The album is proof positive that Slug and Ant understood early on that overwhelming, inarguable talent was the best safety net. Even the sun goes down, and Rawkus eventually died—but if the beats and rhymes were this nice, they might last forever.

From the utterly bizarre and brilliant “Body Pillow” to the hauntingly sober “The River”, Sad Clown Bad Dub II runs the gamut of both Slug and Ant’s diverse repertoires. For a group given to reflection, the record is tellingly stuck in the present tense. “The Ocean”—perhaps the most sadly overlooked song in the entire Atmosphere discography—finds Slug “prepared to go to war, but scared to check the mail” in the wake of a breakup. The details aren’t important, and he doesn’t ruminate on how and why they’re no longer together (“you can take the bone out the chicken/but you can’t take my girl out to lunch without me thinking probably something’s up”). Even when Slug allows himself to speculate, as he does on “Fashion Magazine”, the song ends up back at the same place: with the girl sitting by him on the Dallas-Minneapolis flight. Whether the characters are fighting and fucking or studying napkins in Chicago, they’re allowed to just be.

Sad Clown Bad Dub II is also remarkable for the simple math of it all. A record that should be clumsy, scattered, or anything else that haphazard releases fall victim to is instead lean and consistently brilliant. There is hardly a misplaced bar or drum fill, let alone entire song. Even the sequencing is stellar—the chest-buckling weight of the real world bookends Slug’s tongue-in-cheek take on it, all while “The River” reverts back into the introductory title track like a proto-good kid, m.A.A.d. city. It’s a clear, no-bullshit record that can be listened to intently, studied, or just thrown on in the background—while you and your friends bullshit.

"I wanna rock the boat, but I wanna rock you first."

1. Sad Clown
While “Sad Clown” is an ambitious opening to a record, it might be a bit of a mischaracterization. With the exception of the last two songs, Sad Clown Bad Dub II is lighthearted, or at least delivered with a proverbial wink and smile. Instead of that, the title track throws Pagliacci to the wolves, even when he “can’t fathom why he’d wanna ease they pain”. Sure, the mask stays painted on, but it might not be enough. While the traveling charlatan is a common archetype, Slug is in the one percent of rappers who could really justify the distinction. If he wants it, that is.9.0
2. Body Pillow
The song perhaps best-remembered as the introductory music on God Loves Ugly’s “Hair” is actually one of the hidden gems of Slug and Ant’s long, rewarding career. The latter’s beat is a fittingly unsure backdrop for bizarrely-framed stories about a woman in Chicago who shares Slug’s fascination by a napkin, trees, and tattoos. It’s a shame this never made it onto an official album and therefore to a wider audience, because it’s the quintessential early-2000s Atmosphere track. And don’t tell anyone, but it’s a love song.10.0
3. The Pill
And after the world has proved first bleak and then puzzlingly complex, Slug decides to remove himself from it completely. Boasting that he has “stopped reading the paper, quit watching the news”, his single verse over Ant’s irreverent flip is both biting and earnest. More than that, it’s a piece about being disoriented that isn’t afraid to embrace that notion, a genuinely rare thing to find. When the dubs don’t match up properly with the lead vocals toward the end of the verse, it only enhances the notion that all is not well inside the author’s head. And, man, those closing bars: “What I want is what I already gave up/I give advice that I don’t follow/‘cause it’s twice as hard to swallow/when you know precisely what the pill is made of”. 10.0
4. Running With Scissors
The record that first broke Atmosphere to a national audience was “Scapegoat”, a laundry list of those to blame for the whining narrator’s problems. It caught on for good reason—a clear conceit, great execution, and a charismatic rapper behind it all. “Running With Scissors” is that song’s older, more sophisticated sister. Instead of each phrase and clause being another in a long line of people, places, and things, “Scissors” is a collection of pithy aphorisms mixed in with earnest advice. And that’s the point. Instead of mocking anyone and everyone who might drop their cynicism for a second, Slug’s message is very simple: “I think you need some advice on how to think for self”. Ant is at his Dilla-esque best here, knowing just how and how much to get out of the way to be secondary for three-and-a-half minutes, then unforgettable for hours afterward.10.0
5. Fashion Magazine
Slug is not a writer meant to deal in absolutes. In his signature introspective work as in his detail-obsessed middle period, he succeeds by diving head-first into the grey areas, approaching women, wack rappers, and landlords from angles no one else would consider. So it should come as no surprise to hear that his reputation as a misanthrope is undeserved, or at least reductive. His greatest quality as an artist might be his capacity for empathy. The ability to step into someone else’s too-tight stilettos is on full display on “Fashion Magazine”, where he considers what’s going on between the ears of a young woman on a flight from Dallas to Minneapolis. Her head buried in, well, a fashion magazine, Slug connects the dots he imagines might be there. The beautiful parallel here is that the magazine—the one that “pulls her out of her reality for a moment/we all need our moments”—does for his hero what she in turn does for Slug. Ant’s sparse, irresistible beat is a head-nodding revelation.10.0
6. The Wind
Nestled in between two of the album’s most immediate songs is “The Wind”, a subdued record that might go unnoticed as one of Slug’s most personal moments on all of Sad Clown Bad Dub II. There are no biographical details worth noting, but the tone on this song is one of the few elements of the album that is almost impossible to nail down. On one hand, it’s a whimsical, bemused look at the world—a world where the people look like ants, no pun intended. On the other, it sounds deeply conflicted, so much so that you stop and wonder if the fourth wall might be pulled back right before a song called “Hungry Fuck”. Ant’s beat is exceptional: airy whistling against sharp boom-bap drums is a contrast fitting of the song’s larger identity crisis.9.5
7. Hungry Fuck
“Hungry Fuck” is, without a doubt, the most skeletal song on the record. Fortunately, that leanness leaves the track all the more incisive, as urgent as anything in the Atmosphere catalog. The opening quartet of bars is capped by “twenty-eight years old, yes—I’m still rapping”, then takes left turn after left turn: “I’m getting fed up with American cities/I don’t wanna pay my taxes ‘til they stop killing blacks” is followed by a lament about romantic entanglement, then “I don’t agree with suicide, but I understand it”. In keeping suit with the rest of Sad Clown Bad Dub II, everything feels off-the-cuff, down to the closing lines, where Slug admits “I feel like my peers are trying to mock me/because I know all the words to “La Di Da Di”/fuck everybody”. This wouldn’t raise many eyebrows in 2014, but it was a curious—and rewardingly honest—way to break rank from the turn-of-the-century indie crowd.10.0
8. Hell’s Playground
“Hell’s Playground” is fascinating from a production standpoint. To say the mixes on the Sad Clown Bad Dub II lack dynamism would be a hilarious understatement—the songs aren’t even mixed to begin with. In that sense, this track sounds more like a true demo than some others that would sound largely the same even with a serious polish. But even as it stands, the juxtaposition of the full, careful string arrangement against the clipped drums is exhilarating. For his part, Slug is at his most elusive, weaving in and out of the beat and even finding time to host an impromptu game of duck-duck-grey duck.8.5
9. The Ocean
This is just perfect. The mean swagger of Ant’s guitars, Slug voicing the voices in his head—it’s perfect. There’s no wallowing, waiting for the ex to come back. Slug’s just happy he spends less on beer without her. The writing is funny, insecure, ruthless, and tender, all at the same damn time. Breaking from the dysfunctional-love-over-everything persona that the group had created, there’s a new moral compass: Slug admits he “sold [his] sense of direction for some affection”. And he’s glad to have it back.10.0
10. When It Breaks
All things considered, “When It Breaks” is probably the most pure fun there is to be had on Sad Clown Bad Dub II. A sort of counterpoint to “Running With Scissors”, Slug (presumably half-drunk in a chair at your dorm party) fronts as if he has the answers to all of life’s questions, grinning ear-to-ear. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t, and he doesn’t care. Neither should you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Interestingly, the song is Exhibit A in the case for Slug as technical rapping wizard, a title he has never been given and would probably never claim for himself. He’s verbally dexterous and supremely confident, able to pull off patters that would leave most emcees tongue-tied and comatose.9.0
11. Inside Outsider
It used to be that if you Googled ‘emo rap’, Atmosphere popped up first. This song speaks to that, at least when you take broad glances. The beat is sad. Slug is sad. (He says things like “once upon a time there was the end/do you mind if I steal this pen?”) But where most purely emotive songs strive to create a singular, consistent mood throughout, “Inside Outsider” is willing to explore the intricacies of its author’s depression. There is certainly an underlying fatalism (“can’t none of y’all fools save my ass”), but much of the song reads like Slug trying to retroactively engineer an origin story. He searches and searches for what makes him tick slightly off-key, never quite finding the answer. The track is followed by a minute-long instrumental break lifted straight from Lucy Ford’s “Don’t Ever Fucking Question That”. Maybe this is the saving grace, the light at the end of the tunnel, the “Bound 2”: love.8.5
12. The River
The next installment of the Sad Clown series is a collection of live songs, the best of which is a passionate take on “The River”. As the haunting, perpetual keys kick in, Slug introduces the track, warning “you’ll probably never hear me do this live again”. And that makes perfect sense Unlike so many of Slug’s personal songs, there is no humor to dull the edges, no allegory pulled from the ether—the story stands on its own, obscured just enough to make it bearable. The untimely passing of a friend is real, bleak, and meaningless. There is no silver lining. “When you passed, I wanted to take back the time we wasted/I’d trade all the buzzes in for one more conversation.” Slug’s strength in this period was his ability to draw connections where other writers might not see any. The sorrow in “The River” is that there might be none to draw.10.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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