Thursday, June 05, 2008

When Life Gives You Lemons

When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Rhymesayers, 2008

Atmosphere, the Minneapolis rap group headed by MC Slug and beatmaker Ant have been making music for the proverbial hip hop minute. They’ve become known as emo-rap, mostly due to Slug’s confessional, autobiographical lyrics which detail his every flaw, from being an imperfect father and lover to smoking and drinking too much. However, Slug is much more than just another self-pitying rapper, and Atmosphere are clearly angling to be more than just another rap group. They’ve been touring with a live band, and on Ant is starting to move away from his autobiographical lyrics and expand his range.

The result, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is basically hip hop’s answer to Bruce Springsteen. Slug moves out of the limelight, telling tales in the second and third person. His songs are populated by drug addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, bad fathers, and homeless people. They are all down on their luck, and they are all victims of Bushenomics and the failed American dream that ends in foreclosure. He tackles his subjects with empathy and sensitivity. Slug understands that no one is perfect, and even the biggest fuck-ups often mean well. “You gotta let people be hypocrites,” he says on opener “Like the Rest of Us.” “Count your blessings and mind your business.”

When it works, When Life Gives You Lemons offers the kind of emotional experience that is rare in hip hop, a genre that is generally obsessed with getting yours by any means necessary. “Guarantees” is heartbreakingly gorgeous in its personification of a warehouse worker on his last straw; “You” offers a you-go-girl celebration of a down-on-her luck waitress; “Shoulda Known” describes a relationship with drug addict; and “Your Glasshouse” is a frightening description of an alcoholic’s lost weekend. On these tracks, and several others, Atmosphere manage to combine compelling beats with stories that are emotional without being cheesy. Ant moves on from his old-school leaning beats, instead offering up several tracks based around pianos, and a few tracks of old synthesizers. For the most part, it works.

There are two issues with When Life Gives You Lemons: the first is that Slug hits that alcoholic/drug addict story two often, and sometimes is maudlin and cliché. The other issues is that this is a drab, downtempo album. On tracks like the sparse “Guarantees” or “Puppets,” it works, but a whole album of depressing, slow songs is a bit much. There are handful of tracks on here that are too cheesy, and try too hard for the emotional punch, like Pay It Forward set to music. “Yesterday” is an example of how Slug can slip into high school poetry mode; Over tinkling pianos, he tells the tale of an unknown person who he thought he saw on the street, reminiscing about this person, and wondering what there up to. The kicker comes towards the end, when he says “but you passed away, dad.” It’s a little painful. There are a few more moments like this on the album, but, I’m willing to forgive them for these missteps – they are reaching as artists, and the payoffs make up for the mistakes. I hope that in future albums, Slug watches not to slip into total cliché mode, and Ant keeps things a little more upbeat. When Life Gives You Lemons is an album that is as good as its title. Paint that shit gold indeed.

As a side note, I bought the “Deluxe” version of the album, which comes in book form with a children’s story, lyrics, and a live dvd. It’s interesting, but not essential. The live DVD proves that they are damn good live act.

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