Monday, April 21, 2008

A Review of "When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold" by Atmosphere

Slug and Ant return to form with one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade

Indie hip-hop duo Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is an album that has no business being as good as it actually is. Yes, this is still the same group that released that superb Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly early in their career, but their last few albums have been far less consistent than what fans have come to expect from Atmosphere. The highlights on the group’s early albums not only touched on topics that are often overlooked in hip-hop, but also contained some of the most genuinely real lyrics in the genre. Contrary to most rap acts, even in the underground, there was very little self promotion in Slug’s rhymes, but instead storytelling that focused on genuine lyrics that provoke thought and sympathy as opposed to quick rhyme schemes and complicated flow. Because of this, Slug became one of the easiest rap lyricists to relate to, as well as an emcee that had achieved the all too underappreciated art of genuinely expressing himself through his music and personal reflections. Couple that with Ant’s outstanding production, and you have the formula for one of the finest and most accessible groups in hip-hop. 2003’s Seven’s Travels saw Slug improving on his flow and a style of rhyming that was often too raw for its own good, but other than a few awe-inspiring standouts, replaced many of the genuine moments that Atmosphere fans fell in love with on Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly with an unfortunate amount of filler. Two years later, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having completed Atmosphere’s transformation into a group that silenced anyone who doubted Slug’s rapping ability, but Slug’s improved flow came at the expense of the masterful storytelling of the group’s finest moments.

In retrospect, the group’s sixth album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is a make or break album. Either Atmosphere can return to top form or disappoint longtime fans of the group with another mixed record. Thankfully, Atmosphere fans can stop holding their breath. When Life Gives You Lemons is here, and despite its arguably immature and ridiculous title, it’s the group’s most mature, focused, and overall best album to date.

When Life Gives You Lemons is filled with 15 intelligent and well-written songs and absolutely no filler to speak of. The album isn’t a return to Atmosphere’s early style, nor is it a continuation of the group’s more recent albums. Instead, Slug presents himself as no longer the young rapper trying to express himself through his rhymes, but a mature adult who has refined his stories and message into something that has the potential to leave the listener speechless.

The songwriting on When Life Gives You Lemons is nothing short of superb, and it marks the peak of Slug’s lyrical talents to date. The stories that Slug tells are not as literal as they have been in the past, as the lyrics are littered with subtleties and thought provoking twists. As one would expect from Atmosphere, the topics of the lyrics are often personal and almost always rare for hip-hop. Many of the songs focus on darker subject matter than what is found on even the darkest of rap songs, but Slug’s lyrics aren’t delivered in a way that is especially dark, and his often depressing stories aren’t there for anyone to pity him or themselves. Atmosphere’s lyrics have always been that way they are because they are real. There is darkness in reality, and the darkness in Atmosphere’s music comes from Slug’s mastery of expressing his perspective of reality through his aforementioned storytelling. Only this time around, the playfulness of the group has been restricted and replaced with mature lyrical substance that has the same sincerity of even the most genuine reflections and stories Slug has told through his music. Now, however, Slug has both the skills as a rapper and maturity as a lyricist to write an album full of songs that both meet and surpass Atmosphere’s already phenomenal achievements in songwriting.

However, Slug is not the only member of Atmosphere, just as he is not the only reason that the album is as phenomenal as it is. Even during Atmosphere’s more inconsistent years, Ant’s beats have continued to improve, and that trend continues on When Life Gives You Lemons. The samples Ant uses are a more significant part of Atmosphere’s music than the beats of most other hip-hop acts, and there are few producers who can match the atmosphere that Ant’s samples create for Slug’s stories. The variety in the samples is just as varied as the songs themselves, and Slug’s rhymes and Ant’s beats connect throughout the entire album. Both Slug and Ant have improved in their distinct own ways as Atmosphere has grown, and for the first time since 2002’s God Loves Ugly, they appear to be on the same page on a consistent basis. That essentially means that When Life Gives You Lemons has the same musical atmosphere, both in terms of lyrics and beats, as Atmosphere’s early records, but the improvements in Ant’s production is just as clear as Slug’s improvement as a rapper. Both have matured, refined their skills as musicians, and are once again able to connect musically.

When Life Gives You Lemons opens with “Like the Rest of Us,” a song that contains one of Ant’s most beautiful samples to date. Although the song itself is actually one of the weaker songs on the album, that’s more to do with the phenomenal tracks the album presents the listener with later on than the song itself being weak. On first listen, it immediately renders one common complaint with Atmosphere in the past null and void. Slug has often been criticized for his sometimes overly aggressive delivery, but “Like the Rest of Us” shows a much more controlled Slug, both in terms of delivery and lyrics. Unlike many past Atmosphere songs, Slug doesn’t force the listener into his story with aggressive passion, which can either incite the same amount of passion from the listener as a reaction or repulse them, but on this and many other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, Slug is more passive. He still has the same amount of passion as he’s always had, but it’s his improved focus and maturity as a rapper that allows him to constrain his passion into more focused story and song. It still incites passion from the listener, but anyone who found Slug to be too aggressive on his first few albums should be pleased to find that he has improved dramatically, but still has the same passion that fans identified with.

The album then moves into another slower starting song, and one with just as superb of a beat as the last. “Puppets” is the name of the track, and Slug’s famous singer-songwriter style of rapping is once again found here. Initially, it’s a reminder that Slug is just as unique of a rapper has ever. He’s improved his flow, but he hasn’t conformed stylistically, lyrically, or otherwise. About halfway through the song, the beat kicks in, and it’s at that point where When Life Gives You Lemons grabs the listener and never lets them go. The female vocals found on the song are a perfect contrast to Slug’s vocal style, and the lyrics are simply top notch. “Puppets” is not only one of the album’s highlights, but it’s one of the best songs the group has ever recorded. At that point, Atmosphere has officially matured, and one of the best albums of the decade, rap or otherwise, kicks into gear.

The album continues with a couple of lyrical gems in “The Skinny” and “Dreamer.” Both of which contain a more passive approach by Slug, and two very different but equally great samples by Ant. “The Skinny,” in particular, tackles a familiar topic, but the perspective and maturity that Atmosphere provide make it standout. This is once again due in part to Slug’s impressive storytelling, but also because of the sincerity of the duo’s lyrics. The theme of “The Skinny” is one that is often glorified in rap music, but Slug’s passionate yet passive delivery puts a truthful perspective on it, and makes the song a rather unique one. “Dreamer” is another gem, both in terms of lyrics and beat. The chorus of the song is one of best connections between Ant and Slug, and it provides a hook for the song. However, the hook isn’t one that makes it catchy so much as it draws the listener into the story of the song. The upbeat sample combined with a more positive delivery from Slug nails the message in ways that Atmosphere had only shown the potential of doing in the past. It's also is a song that can be shown to anyone who calls Atmosphere “emo” or “too depressing.” Yes, they deal with dark subject matter, but their commentary is real and maintains an optimistic perspective. Now more than ever that is reflected in Atmosphere’s music, and with that comes a new realm of subtleties that add father depth to lyrics that are already full of substance on literal level.

Quite possibly the weakest track on the album is the first single, “Shoulda Known.” Granted, it’s a quality song, but it’s a more typical rap song than most of the other tracks on the album. It’s on this track and only this track where Slug’s more passive style doesn’t work because this particular song lacks the passion that is found on the most memorable tracks on the album. The beat, although solid, is also forgettable, and despite being unique enough to separate itself from the rest of tracks in context with the album, it’s the closest thing to filler on When Life Gives You Lemons.

Thankfully, the album regains its momentum with the upbeat and bass driven “You,” the subtle and somewhat beautiful “Painting,” and the fantastic “Your Glasshouse.” All three of these songs are different from the anything else on the album, as well as anything Atmosphere has done in the past, yet once again show the variation and maturity that can be found on this record. “Your Glasshouse” is one of the darker and almost intentionally sluggish songs on the album, but just like one would expect from Atmosphere that isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It just is, and it continues the dark but real perspective that Atmosphere’s music has always had. However, it’s the type of focused excellence that fans have been longing for since Atmosphere first turned heads with their Overcast EP.

One of the most personal songs on the album is “Yesterday,” which is yet another wonderfully produced and passionately written highlight that has the power to make anyone who’s lost a loved one sit and think about what they've just heard. Like the best of Atmosphere’s music, it has the power to stay with the listener, and that’s something that is an element of art that is not easy to achieve. On a similar note, the acoustic blues-rap of “Guarantees” is another standout that has similar staying power. The simple acoustic riff that Slug passionately raps over is yet another beat that does an outstanding job of complimenting the lyrics and creating the dark and powerful atmosphere of the song.

The first ten tracks on When Life Gives You Lemons are almost entirely outstanding, but the album somehow improves in its final five tracks. Arguably the two best songs on the album are “Me” and “The Waitress,” two powerful stories that rank as not only two of the greatest songs Atmosphere has recorded, but also two of the most moving rap songs this critic has ever heard. The final line of “The Waitress” is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is guaranteed to make some sort of emotional impact on the listener. There really isn’t anything that can be said for the song other than it will send chills down your spine and that it must be heard to be believed. There are many underground rap songs that exemplify the power of hip-hop, but “The Waitress,” among other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, exemplifies the power of music and lyricism as a whole.

Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is not only the group best album since Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly, but it’s also one of the most intelligent, mature, and poetic albums to come out in some time. This is not only a crowning achievement of an album that is an example of just how great underground rap can be, but it’s an accessible and unique masterpiece that isn’t constrained by its genre. Regardless of how much or how little you enjoy rap, buy this album immediately. It’s spectacular from start to finish, and it has earned my highest recommendation.

Key tracks: Puppets, Me, The Waitress

Grade: A


Delon Music said...

I like this album already just from the title -- it is very catchy and thought provoking. I applaud positive hiphop music because I believe that this is the way hiphop music is supposed to be. I believe this album is gonna go gold!

Anonymous said...

Damn right. Some of their latest was genius, some was kind of lame. If it's what you claim it is, then this album fixed that problem. Thank God. Good review.