Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Best of 2008: #1. Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

Atmosphere is a funny combination; rare is it that underground hip-hop gains such a massive following. And yet, given the growing alternative, it's really no surprise to see the Minnesota group gain greater and greater prominence over the more mainstream-oriented fare. But I'm not here to rant about the state of modern hip-hop; especially given that I don't care. What I am here to say is that the sixth album from producer/rapper duo Ant and Slug, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is their best yet, combining the polish of You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having with the emotional depth of Godlovesugly into a remarkably deep and resonant package.

As far as vocals go, When Life Gives You Lemonsrepresents something of a shift in approach for Slug. His rich, descriptive style is no longer focused inward; the same introspective qualities that have always abounded in Slug's lyrics still apply, but now more than ever they take on a narrative perspective, serving to illuminate the lives and mindsets of any number of eloquently explored characters. Through his empathetic and nimble direction, Slug weaves his way through the adversities and struggles of the people we see in our day-to-day lives, from the waitress serving taking your orders to pay her way through school ("You") to the homeless man on the street corner just trying to get out of the cold ("The Waitress"). One of the strongest is the tale of a blue-collar father trying to provide for his family in the face of near-destitution ("Guarantees"). Accompanied by a simple, bluesy guitar lick, Slug's first-person narrative exquisitely describes the plight of the working poor, pitting the abject hopelessness of trying to become something - anything - versus the necessity to keep on going anyway.

well maybe we can speed up the process
kill me in my thirties in the name of progress
put me in the dirt and then change the topic
some times it seems like the only way to stop it
contemplating my departure date
doesn't take a lot to get a lot of us to talk this way

It would take too long to explore all the great lines Slug peppers in throughout this album, but suffice to say they are bountiful, and they exude a cautious understanding of even the most flawed of individuals being explored.

wanna make her smile? want to make her laugh?
want to make up for the mistakes in the past?
want to act like he doesn't know better
if payback's a bitch, he'll be in debt forever
insecure, impatient
temporary gratification, self validation
that's what it's made of, it's all true
and it's the only reason that he's even talking to you

On the production side of things, Ant does some of his best work yet, staying away from the stark minimalism of early Atmosphere with lush recordings of pianos, woodwinds and synthesizers. Early on in his career, Ant was mostly just a backdrop for Slug's lyrical prowess, with his beats consisting of simple rhythms and usually an instrument layered over top, making sure never to detract unduly attention from Slug. And while this did well to showcase one of the best underground rappers around, it sometimes made for an overly basic affair. But with the duo's last album, You Can't Believe How Much Fun We're Having, this changed, as Ant's beats became thicker, and began to gain equal footing with Slug's vocals. On When Life Gives You Lemons, the production is remarkably crisp, with a variety of instruments popping up all over the place to enhance the aura, and it shows even as Ant moves further and further away from typical hip-hop production. (The flute makes not one, but two appearance here - giving it perhaps the most street cred of all the reedless wind instruments.)

Ant's production has an engrossing warmth to it, giving it a sympathetic edge that compliments Slug beautifully. This can be seen in how the lyre-like strings of "Like the Rest of Us" pace Slug's gentle crooning, or in how the desperation of the titular "Dreamer" is enhanced by Ant's orchestral flourishes. Or how the wonderfully nostalgic feel of "In Her Music Box" helps to give a sense of innocence to the song, making us feel like the child in the story, blissfully unaware of both her mom's distress and her dad's immaturity.

Yet Ant doesn't just compliment Slug; on several occasions, the instruments are the main focus of the listener's attention, driving the song along and giving it its identity. For example, the dark, dense synth-lead production of "Your Glasshouse" and "Can't Break" fantastically influence the feel of their respective songs. In the former, it serves to enhance the disorientation the lead character feels upon waking up to a hangover, and in the latter, it makes up for a rare disjointed narrative by giving it a menacing feel that helps piece the parts together.

Atmosphere's sixth album is a triumph of modern hip-hop that eschews the shallow themes and masturbatory self-aggrandization that makes the genre impenetrable to those who demand actual depth in their music. Both Slug and Ant are at the very top of their already, proving why each has the level of influence that they do in their respective fields. This is an extremely personable album that the listener can identify and empathize with immediately due to the beautifully deep characterizations and the intricate and original production. The next time you're ever feeling down or depressed, crestfallen over the latest of many things to go wrong, just put on some Atmosphere and paint that shit gold.

1 comment:

cretin said...

HAHAHAHAH YESSSSS I'M FUCKING DONEEE and better yet, I actually managed to do justice to the albums I was trying to describe.


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