Atmosphere's Growing Pains
And bigger than ecstasy and bigger than techno
The new Atmosphere album is called When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. The album cover is just that title and the group's name printed in gold-leaf against a plain black background on a cloth-bound book the size of a CD. In between the CD and a bonus DVD that I'll probably never watch, we get the full lyrics to every track on the album along with a fully illustrated children's book, which might've even been illustrated by Slug or Ant. The only guests credited on the liner notes whose names I recognize are TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, who coos wordlessly deep in the mix throughout "Your Glasshouse," and Tom Waits, who beatboxes on "The Waitress." Convincing Tom Waits to beatbox on your record is something like getting Paul McCartney to crunch on celery in the background. (Waits, for the record, beatboxes like a fourth-grader during recess. Absolutely nothing about his appearance gives away that it's him mouth-farting.) No non-Slug rappers show up on Lemons; we don't even get the customary battle-rap throwdown with Brother Ali. I'm not sure why Slug didn't go ahead and scream that this album is a serious artistic statement at the top of the first track; he does everything else possible to pound that message home.
We might be watching Slug split himself into two component parts. Earlier this year, Atmosphere released Strictly Leakage, a free online party-rap mixtape. The tape worked pretty well, but it mostly did so on the strength of Ant's beefed-up old-rap beats. Slug, for his part, always sounds a little uncomfortable when he ditches his flowery emo-talk for straight-up brag-rap, but he doesn't exactly come across as something more natural when he leaves the brag-rap aside for bummed-out storytelling, which is what he does throughout Lemons. When Atmosphere were at their peak (Lucy Ford through Seven's Travels, for my money), Slug's strut had a way of animating his confessional side, and vice versa. He balanced those two sides delicately and precisely, interrupting his sad-bastard talk with well-placed dumb jokes and burying a self-deprecatory streak in even his fiercest shit-talk. On Lemons, that shit-talk is entirely gone. Slug barely mentions himself, and he's largely replaced his sharp self-dissections with capsule stories about nameless people, all of whom struggle mightily in one way or another. There's a lot of talk of addiction on Lemons, and not a little bit of heavy-handed woman-in-distress pathos-peddling. But even if the story of "You," about the waitress who hates her customers, feels well-trod, it's rendered with force and empathy, and there's a neat little storytelling trick at the end where Slug shows up to flirt with the woman he's been describing. "Your Glasshouse" depicts a girl waking up hungover and blacked-out in a stranger's bed, and it paints as evocative a hungover image as I ever want to hear. The pimp in "The Skinny" is a greasy, predatory monster, not the cool operator of one bazillion other rap songs, and we hear all about a girl he's busy victimizing. In "Dreamer," a woman supports two kids and a no-account boyfriend. In "Guarantees," a beaten-down wage slave contemplates death. And on it goes: another song, another oppressed protagonist.
On the one hand, it's refreshing to hear a humane rap album that frankly acknowledges paycheck-to-paycheck reality, one that sees poverty not as a puzzle to solve but as a grim, numbing, inescapable fact. Lemons is, in some ways, Slug's experiment with empathy, his attempt to see through other people's eyes. But not surprisingly, it works best when he focuses on his own problems. On "Me," he raps in the third person and still gives a pretty unforgiving account of his own tendencies toward codependency and manipulation. And "Yesterday" is probably the most deeply moving song here, a simple story about thinking he recognized someone on the street, someone who he hadn't seen in a while; he waits until the end to reveal that it's [I guess I should put a spoiler alert here] his dead father. Slug's always been a hell of a storyteller, but when he's talking about other people here, he tends to skimp on the minute details and go for emotional impressionism. Sometimes it works; I love the ooky bar-scene evocations on "Can't Break": "Every city's the same scene, gangrene / Vampires looking at your veins, fangs craving / Interchangeable hair similar name jeans / Faux-made take-charge and late-start playthings." But this stuff can veer into the purple just as easily: "She ended up on a pole / With her high heels pointing at a Jesus she used to know."
This is the first album Atmosphere have done with their touring band, and so the music is a mixed bag. As far as indie-rap producers go, Ant has always been on some organic fleshed-out boom-bap shit; I've always secretly hoped to see his name in the liner notes of a Scarface CD or something. His stuff has never sounded especially electronic, so he absorbs the live band better than any of his contemporaries might. And it's cool hearing Slug rap over an unaccompanied acoustic guitar on "Guarantees." But too often that band indulges in watery funk noodling, just like they sometimes do onstage. I hope live-instrument rap groups start taking cues from the last couple of stark, icy Roots albums and sacrifice showiness for propulsion.
Slug, for his part, has a great rap voice; even when he's describing the bleakest and most hopeless situation, he's got this irrepressible swagger in his voice that he couldn't get rid of if he tried. I wonder if he tried. Lemons is the most self-consciously un-rappy rap record I've heard in a good long minute. Slug, in fact, only gets around to mentioning rap on the last song, "Her Little Music Box," a story about a little girl who falls asleep in the back of a car while her idolized idiot father cranks the radio and maybe sells drugs up front: "She sings along just like her dad does / She knows all the words but she leaves out the bad ones / Except bitch; she always sings the word bitch / Because it makes her daddy laugh, it's her little magic trick." Rap, then, becomes both a refuge and a pernicious force. He's older now, mid-thirties, and it makes sense that he'd be thinking about this stuff and working with a legacy in mind. Lemons is a brave leap of an album, but getting away from rap, if that's what he's trying to do here, can't be an easy thing when you're a rapper. Personal growth doesn't always make for great music.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on Atmosphere's Seven's Travels
Voice review: Michaelangelo Matos on Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly