Storytelling: Atmosphere raps about life, just not his own

Minnesota-based indie-rap duo Atmosphere plays songs that tell stories, but not necessarily about the themselves.
Photo: Dan Monick

“The progress stops and pauses/spits and sputters like the basement faucet. And it’s obvious he’s lost in his regrets./You can smell it on his breath.”

Rapper Sean “Slug” Daley – half of indie-rap group Atmosphere – says “Painting,” about a man’s battle alcoholism is one of his favorite tracks off 2008 album “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.” That doesn’t mean the tale of alcohol abuse and desperation is about him, however.

While Daley’s lyrics can sound intensely personal, most are the fictional product of paying very close attention to his surroundings. “These songs are not autobiographical,” Daley emphasizes. “If they were, I’d be dead from alcohol poisoning.”


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The 36-year-old, who will take to the stage at the House of Blues on August 18 as the headliner of the “When God Gives Your Ugly” tour, has taken on the much-forgotten role of musical storyteller. His raps – paired with tracks and beats from DJ/producer Anthony “Ant” Davis – often read like vignettes, sketching a life in vivid miniature. On “Dreamer” he channels a struggling single mother with a heart condition. An aging homeless man is the protagonist of “The Waitress,” and Daley gets into the head of a young girl riding around in her father’s backseat on “In Her Music Box.”

“I don’t think that my songs are lies,” the rapper explains earnestly. “I’m just storytelling.”

While they might not be about his own experiences, Daley’s lyrics are highly realistic, more about the minutiae of daily life than the broad grandeur idolized by many of his fellow musicians. There’s no abstract wailing about love here. A phrase about “money and bitches” would sound as foreign on an Atmosphere track as Marilyn Manson would covering Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas.”

“I can’t sit here and write a story about an astronaut on cocaine, because I‘ve never been an astronaut and I’ve never done cocaine,” he says with a laugh. “[When I’m writing] I go through my mental Rolodex of stories that I know. I’ve been accused of being very observant and I pay attention to my surroundings more than I should. I memorize my surroundings.”

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