It’s good advice, kids. But be warned: Atmosphere’s new album is dedicated to “all the Dads.” Worried?
Well, you can stop. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, apart from having the best album title since Yo La Tengo’s I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, is a musical evolution for Atmosphere and a breath of fresh air for fans of good music.
Atmosphere, the dynamic duo of MC Slug and producer Ant (their real names are Sean and Anthony – not important), have been accused at times of being “emo-rap”. This is largely because Slug’s rhymes sometimes suggest greater personal complexity than “Cleaning Out My Closet” or whatever the fuck that Eminem song is. Also, Slug’s rhymes tend to suggest that he’s read a book once in his life, rendering him far too much of a pussy for today’s mainstream (read: macho asshole) hip-hop.
But it doesn’t matter what you call Atmosphere: Ant and Slug are two of the most gifted and consistently excellent artists in hip-hop today, bar none. Late last year, in addition to the excellent Sad Clown, Bad Winter EP, they gave us – for free – the “party” album Strictly Leakage. All that was merely a teaser for one of the best albums of 2008 (in any genre), the afore-mentioned When Life Gives You Lemons, You Make Really Great Hip-Hop.
Slug is at his best when he is flowing loud and easy over heavy beats (as he does effortlessly on Strictly Leakage), so the fact that When Life Gives You Lemons starts off with the nearly-whispered “Like the Rest of Us,” is a bit of a curve-ball, though not an unpleasant one. Now, as I previously mentioned, When Life Gives You Lemons is dedicated to fatherhood. If you read my review of Elvis Costello’s new album (and you didn’t), you know that I don’t really like it when people write songs or albums about the myriad joys of parenthood. Fortunately for me (and everyone else), Atmosphere’s dedication to “all the dad’s” doesn’t make this album kid’s stuff. These 15 tracks are a tour through a world of fucked up fathers and their fucked up offspring. The father in “The Waitress” is a bum who scrounges up change so he can buy coffee and sit in the diner where his daughter works without getting busted for loitering. The stark and honest portrayal of America’s Most Fucked-Over (by self, life, and bad luck) on When Life Gives You Lemons is analogous to The Hold Steady’s tales of fucked up kids making bad decisions (point of interest: before moving to Brooklyn, The Hold Steady hailed from the same Minnesota scene as Atmosphere) – they’re cathartic stories that don’t moralize about what the protagonists should or should not do. This is what these people did do and the price they paid for it. Atmosphere proves on When Life Gives You Lemons that there is a way to talk about what Brad Neeley would call “real shit,” – fatherhood, fucking up relationships, growing up – without making it this trite, saccharine affair that so many other artists turn out when they start to write about their families (if you doubt what I’m saying, listen to “My Father’s Eyes” by Eric Clapton even once without vomiting. I dare you.). On “Yesterday”, Slug discusses his relationship with his father like someone might discuss a relationship with a lover that they clearly fucked up. It’s a neat trick and it illustrates a fairly common point with uncommon cleverness – there are a lot of similarities in how we relate to the people we love, be they romantic partners or family, and honest examination of our own tendencies in relationships might, someday, lead us toward something that resembles wisdom.
The beats, as always, are heavy and varied – there are a lot more live instruments on this album and Atmosphere is better for it. “Guarantees” sees Slug rhyming over a single electric guitar; it’s the kind of thing that, if done well, sounds like “Guarantees” and, if done terribly, sounds like Sublime. But the live instruments – guitar, piano, bass, drums, Tom Waits beat-boxing (um… fucking awesome) – give When Life Gives You Lemons the flavor of a very old-school album, something more like a pop record with rapping on it. There are, of course some duds (“Dreamer” is not one, but it features one of the worst lines Slug’s ever written: “she had a condition of the heart/ a heart condition”), but there’s no perfect vessel for the delivery of awesome music (except for maybe the afore-mentioned Mr. Waits) and from start to finish, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is an entirely fresh and excellent album that I like more every time I listen to it.