It was a week before Atmosphere's seventh studio album, Southsiders, came out, and Sean Daley, lyricist and MC, was hyped. But in his own way. To listen to Sean, better known as Slug, wax poetic is an exercise in navigating tension. It's a tension that comes with the self-awareness you get as a mainstay in the 'underground' hip-hop scene for nearly twenty years. Past versus present versus future looms large for Slug as his focus changes. "I've got kids. I've got a wife. A cat. My phone bill is paid. What I need to do now is live forever. I'm thinking about what kind of love I can leave behind. I'm at that age now where you start thinking about that kind of shit."

I asked him if the comfortable things in his life, the family, the house, the feline, ever made him lazy. "I was comfortable at 29 because I was wasted. I was comfortable at 21 because I had a brand new kid, and I had no money, but I had a purpose. I've always been with comfort, and to me, I don't think comfort is what keeps people from being motivated. It's keeping from being complacent." Slug is anything but complacent, constantly challenging his own worldview. "I've always had this theory that all art was about procreation. But now I'm starting to see the nuanced side of what I do. It's much more than procreation. I've made the baby - and I'm still going."

You can see the shift in attitude and purpose in Atmosphere's catalogue. Where GodLovesUgly brought the self-effacing title track, and Seven's Travels the blistering 'Trying to Find a Balance', you could see the shift start to happen with When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, when Slug switched from memoir to fiction. "When my dad died, it made me take a hard look at how personal I make albums. When he passed away and I heard from a friend of his how hurt he was about that song, it shook me. It made me go, I gotta quit putting everybody's dirty laundry out there. I just tried to steer away from that altogether and make an album that was other people's stories." Since then, he's been more focused on using fictional stories to explore universal themes. Southsiders, Atmosphere's latest offering, is much more than an homage to their hometown of south Minneapolis (though rapping about your hometown is Slug's "rule seven or so" of hip-hop.) Through Slug's stories, the record espouses themes of legacy, creation, mortality, and passion. "I always try to do things that are open to interpretation. What the hell does someone in San Antonio care about what's going on in the southside of Minneapolis? Everything has a southside. Everything has a bottom."

Slug noted that their latest effort, Southsiders' statement of purpose ("every record has one") is entitled 'Fortunate'. It's a slow burner that begins boldly and moodily, "I highly doubt that y'all think about sex anywhere near as often as I think about death," Slug intones over organs and ominous bass notes. It's vintage Atmosphere, but elevated by the tension between the laidback cadence and fervent subject matter. Towards the end of the song, Slug pontificates on time: "I'm trying to tether it up and live forever through love."

The production has evolved over the years as well. When I said "[producer] Ant[hony Davis] loves keys" as a springboard for his take on the production side of his records, Slug was quick to point out, "using the piano is cheating. We know this, and that's why we do it. In my opinion, there is nothing that can compete with the piano. If you want to convey a type of happiness, sadness, anger, the piano can cover it all. We've kind of become a piano group. If you look at the songs that people gravitate towards, it's all the piano ones. 'Yesterday', 'Sunshine', 'Get Fly'. We try to not be too obvious with the piano anymore. We're trying to figure out how not to cheat so much anymore, but we can't help it. We learned it very early." Cheating though it may be, if you're a fan of those tasty licks, you can find some new ones on tunes like 'Arthur's Song' and 'Mrs. Interpret' (which also includes singing in French!) off Southsiders.

At Atmosphere's record release show in New York City on Tuesday, Slug was regular, grateful, and hungry. It had been nearly ten years since I'd seen them last, and I found that the aforementioned artistic evolution did not take away from, but enhanced what Atmosphere has always been about. I remembered something he said the previous week. "I think me and Anthony make music about hope," Slug had told me. "It feels like it's bigger than us. It feels like I'm not even the most important part of the equation. My relationship with my audience, I'm possibly the least important part of that equation. The most important part is the people looking for that hope," Slug told me. It's an astute observation on the nature of music consumption, but he neglected to mention that without Atmosphere, that particular energy wouldn't even exist. That sort of creation is a hell of a legacy.

Atmosphere's new album, Southsiders, is out now.