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Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

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Artist: Atmosphere

Album: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

Label: Rhymesayers

Review date: Jul. 7, 2008


Atmosphere - "Like The Rest Of Us" (When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold)


Rappers are materialists. Most MCs admit to this; those who don’t are either in denial or are Common – either way, not to be trusted. But being a materialist needn’t be as derisive as it sounds. Sure, it suggests greed, a sin to which most rappers confess with a smirk. It also implies an approach that, at its peak, is frank and empirical. Lots of hip hop attempts to capture the folds and textures of our social fabric, from the ragged poverty of urban American to the rich excesses of what success yields here, in sixteen bar segments. Interior reflections be damned; keeping it real is the name of the game. Of course, realness in hip hop is a misnomer – can it really be true, for instance, that every day you’re hustling? Nonetheless, accurately representing the world continues to be one of hip hop’s great aspirations.

Which leads us to Atmosphere, the Minneapolis duo that has spent the past ten years defying this veritas. Producer Ant has followed the general hip hop format – staccato drums, aggressive hooks – but Slug, Atmosphere’s antihero frontman, has declined to look outward. Instead, he has tended to rap about himself, often to the point of obsession. Forget taking a page from his rhymebook – Slug has made a career reporting live from his therapist’s chaise. For their efforts, Atmosphere has been equally held high as the vanguard of “emo” hip hop and dismissed as overgrown adolescents who need to grow up. In truth, the two charges are one and the same: both follow from Slug’s solipsist hamming.

Given this background, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Atmosphere’s new full-length, is a surprising break. MySpace rap this ain’t. Atmsophere declines the first-person soliloquies, and Slug focuses on a troupe of characters that, as even casual Atmosphere listeners might expect, all suffer in some way. Apparently, Slug can change his perspective but cannot help seeing the angst in everything.

As Atmosphere acolytes will likely rebut here, Slug has technically never been averse to talking about people other than himself. His recurring Lucy Ford character, which has appeared in Atmosphere’s recordings since the group’s inception, proves this well enough. But Lucy Ford has always been an amorphous figure for Atmosphere. Slug employs her as much to portray a real-life woman in his life as he uses her as a poetic device to better express his own distress. Often, Lucy Ford and the rest of the characters populating Atmosphere’s records have been metaphors for Slug to work out his own issues.

By contrast, the folks peopling When Life… exist without reference to Slug’s mind. They are figures culled from the external world – precisely the realm that Atmosphere has, until now, generally ignored. Perhaps we should be thankful for this departure. It’s hard enough listening to your actual significant others whine about their insecurities; is anyone really interested in listening to more complaints, this time from a 30-year-old underground recording success? So bravo, Slug and Ant. With this release, there’s now a little less bullshit in our lives.

Or, at least a certain variety of bullshit. When Life… certainly cuts down on the interior monologues. But, in their place, Atmosphere substitutes a series of maudlin narratives of skid row purgatory and working-class plight. There’s the prostitute sucking her pimp’s “skinny white dick,” the alcoholic “lost in his regrets,” the worker “months behind on everything except the lottery,” and the day-shift woman who “loves the people who love” her but doesn’t know anything about herself. Slug’s lyrics on When Life… would seem to be of a feather with dozens of other hip hop laments about the struggles of poor America. But Slug is not restating “Brenda’s Got a Baby” – he’s not giving voice to those who, lacking access to or interest from the media, remain muffled. Rather, Slug seems to be channeling lyricists – Springsteen, perhaps – who don’t report from the trenches but reinterpret contemporary American malaise in the poetry of song.

Too bad, then, that Slug’s stanzas sink in the muck of triteness or worse. The problem with When Life… is that as Slug has directed his attentions to others beside himself, his fascination with woe has limited his insights. We get the point: Life is hard and bad choices are inevitable. Does anyone really have to drop $15 for this discovery?

The dourness of When Life… is all the more trying on songs like “Dreamer” and “Shoulda Known,” in which Slug relates the travails of young women involved with irresponsible and unresponsive partners. On these tracks, Slug stakes an odd, and one hopes unintentionally, paternalistic tack. “Go ahead and hate the world, girl / You earned the right now,” he encourages the protagonist of “Dreamer.” If only these damsels could heed Atmosphere’s omniscient counsel! Then, oh then, might these women overcome the pains of this modern world. The mistake here is ultimately one of arrogance. Just because Slug has spent the past decade in rhymed self-analysis doesn’t imply that he purchase on the world beyond him.

When Life… is not all bad, however. It is merely middling. The power dynamics of “The Waitress,” a recounting of an exchange between a homeless loiterer and the woman shooing him away, does feature some (albeit slightly stale) insight about their shared social impotence. The most promising aspect of When Life… is Ant’s composition. The songs here are more diverse than past Atmosphere offerings. “Like the Rest of Us,” the album’s opener, is a piano ballad that Slug delivers in a half-sung croon. On paper, this should rightly raise doubts. But to their credit, Atmosphere pulls it off without a lurch.

Indeed, “Like the Rest of Us” may be the most interesting song featured here. For a group most famous for the intensity of 2003’s “Trying to Find a Balance,” Atmosphere proves to be surprisingly engaging in muted tones. If only Slug could follow Ant’s lead, and experiment with something other than his tried and true gloom.

By Ben Yaster

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