Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Hip-hop / Rap
Much like the Coen Brothers, Atmosphere are a two-man outfit from Minnesota; also like Joel & Ethan Coen, they take a genre known for being a spectacle of macho violence and add an introspective, personal flair to it. Made up of emcee Slug and producer Ant, Atmosphere are the pioneers of what many refer to as “emo rap”. Rather than drumming up some inauthentic rhymes about the usual hip-hop subjects, Slug tells a story in every track and delves into the emotional side of his characters’ lives and loves. While a lot of Atmosphere’s stuff is serious in lyrical tone and mood, Ant provides some revelatory backing tracks, with a spacey stoner vibe on many and a lot of deep digging into some different musical styles. Together, Atmosphere are pushing the boundaries of what independent hip-hop can be in the ’00s.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold was streamed on their MySpace page on 4/20 before being released on Tuesday. We kick off with “Like The Rest of Us”, which is a poor choice for an album opener. It’s built around a piano line that sounds like an augment to a bass-driven beat that isn’t actually there, it just sounds like it should be. The song is quiet and introspective, definitely falling into that “emo rap” category, but it seems like a mid-album track and it feels out of place in the opening spot. While the emotional tone of Slug’s lyrics are what makes Atmosphere stand out, songs like “Me”, with its Enya-ish sample, and the touching-but-depressing-paean-to-a-dead-father, “Yesterday”, can feel a little saccharine.
The seriousness of Slug’s superior rhymes often overshadows tracks by Ant that could be more fun than they come across, like on the jazzy Scott Joplin-reminiscent “The Waitress”. Usually though, the production can accent the lyrical theme perfectly, like on the standout “Wild Wild Horses”. This track has a windblown nostalgia vibe—a story of tumultuous young love with a summery relaxing quality that makes the emotion of the track feel sweet.
On the other hand, Ant’s production overshadows Slug’s lyrics on other tracks, like the lead-off single “Shoulda Known”. The beat is a chopped-up bassline with a sound similar to Bootsy Collins and his envelope-filtered “space bass”. The bouncy, handclap accentuated beat makes this track the most danceable. A similar effect is used on “Dreamer”, a story about a girl who’s stuck with a deadbeat guy who won’t get a job. At times, the production is epic to the point of overpowering the vocals, such as on “Can’t Break”, with a monstrous, unforgiving bass boom. Other times, simple is the key, like on “Guarantee”, which is built around a lone guitar, strumming in a downtempo ska beat similar to “Under the Bridge”. Slug’s lyrics are on fire for that track, showing that he’s one of the most impressive lyricists in hip-hop.
More so than on their previous releases, Lemons really shows Atmosphere as a two-man act. While it’s hard to ignore the tales spun by a talented writer like Slug, Ant’s production takes a step to the foreground here. Everything from a blues guitar (“Painting”) to a wind-up music box (“In Her Music Box”) get sampled to give this record a wide soundscape of inventive, original beats. In these post-Eminem times, Atmosphere might just be the standard bearers for white hip-hop in America. Lemons is a clear example that even if they aren’t yet, they should be.