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

[Rhymesayers; 2008]

Styles: rap gone bad, spoiled, rotten, excreting a repugnant brown juice
Others: Tom Waits, Prince, and The Replacements eating yellow snow in Minnesota

I’ve long lamented Atmosphere’s post-Lucy Ford downward spiral into the lazy and the lackluster. (It’s been a dizzy and vertiginous plummet.) I’ve searched for hope, even convinced myself certain albums were good (Seven’s Travels). In short, I’ve been a desperate man. So after reading Minneapolis’ own City Pages article (“Purple Rain Dogs”) about When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, I was sitting dutifully on my stoop with fingers crossed, awaiting the arrival of the postman who would have the album in his satchel. Instead of an envelope containing Minnesota nice, I got an envelope stuffed with a moldy lemon.

Truthfully, the first two songs had me rejoicing. I heard pleasing music and lines with wit and Slug’s patented grammatical liberties. One can hear it in the opening track, “Like the Rest of Us”: “Not every pony grows up to be a Pegasus/ You gotta let people be hypocrites/ Count your blessings and mind your businesses.” My early encouragement soon vanished, as did my trust and confidence in Atmosphere.

Slug’s writing, which apparently peaked somewhere between 1997 and 2000, has lapsed into the exhausted and downright jejune. He has been busy in recent years nodding to pioneers, dumbing down lyrics to humdrum standards not for mass consumption, but for the hip-hop hoi polloi who formed a consensus sometime around the millennium (after the impact of anticon. and their like-minded affiliates had been felt) that declared any intelligence more than two steps ahead of the mainstream was two too many.

Forsaken. Much has been forsaken. Slug has forsaken his endless cycle of hair growth — a cycle of shaggy to shaved — for a new style: a long, slick, and dark Vincent Vega do. He has become almost indistinguishable from the once phantom producer, Ant. Ant, who a fan once speculated was Slug’s alter ego, has decided to be seen. Nowadays, he has a much more prominent role in the group — on stage, in video, in person. Ant has forsaken his reclusiveness. He has also forsaken his production techniques.

When Life Gives You Lemons relies heavily on live instrumentation. Although this transition works for some acts -- ones who don’t herald hip-hop in quite the strict manner Atmosphere do, and ones (like Atmosphere prior to this release) that limited it to live performances -- here the style sputters. We’re given a de trop of horrid synthesizers, only to be outdone by worse choruses and banal refrains. The live instrumentation approach versus Ant’s loud-as-fug drums, brass, and woodwind samples -- that actually sound like winds blowing through St. Paul, Hinckley, and Hibbing (see: “The Waitress”) -- just doesn’t equate.

Everything is very deliberate on the album. Slug raps of the downtrodden trucker and diner waitress types — Tom Waits territory. But he’s overly sentimental, melodramatic. Things are cleaner than they used to be; things have been spruced. Some interesting moments do crop up (tempo changes, vocal intonation tricks, song structure), but they barely mask the setbacks. Guests provide backing: Channy Casselle and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on vocals, Tom Waits on beatbox. Though affecting, these appearances detract from the insular entity that is Atmosphere.

Slug once whispered on internet forums and remote venue stages about a surplus of something like 300 songs in a locked vault in Ant’s basement. We were assured, even if he was retired, disappeared, or killed, Slug would have enough material to satiate us for years to come. So I ask: Where are these hidden gems? I implore you, Mr. Daley, open the treasure trove. If you don’t wish to share that cache of alms, please revert to whatever methods you employed at the time to craft such banner work. Otherwise, Garrison Keillor has some explaining to do. (I don’t know to whom else I would turn for answers.)

Atmosphere are, unequivocally, appreciative and loyal to their fans, but they do them a disservice when they begin to write and record inferior music. Or maybe I have a skewed perspective. Maybe I don’t know what Atmosphere fans want or what Slug and Ant are determined to deliver. Maybe it’s just I’m not a fan anymore.

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