Friday, May 30, 2008

Atmosphere's New Record: Best Rap of the Year?

Atmosphere- "Your Glasshouse"
Atmosphere- "Puppets"

I haven't written any honest-to-God music reviews in a long time. A planned first quarter Record Roundup came and went, and now I'm still trying to put together a first-half report or something. For now what I can tell you is that When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold by Atmosphere is near the top of my list.

Keep in mind that I like all of Atmosphere's work. Not only Overcast! or God Loves Ugly, but also the stuff everyone else is underwhelmed by, including 2005's panned You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having. What makes the (relatively--it came out a month ago, sorry) new album special, however, is the way it amplifies what has always been the strength of the group--Slug's inward, detailed, searing narratives--while correcting the faults that have haunted them all along--unfocused anger, sophomoric touches, Ant's inconsistent production. When Life Gives You Lemons... presents a version of Slug that remains bitter and searching but adds a wearied wisdom to the portrait.

The speakers of Slug's stories have always been disillusioned, working class people who are enduring "the second shift till the neck is stiff" and who are "months behind on everything but the lottery." The loneliness of their addictions, along with the remorse of "swallowing that friend," is still a major theme, and Slug still loves the subject of girls who hate themselves. But it's hard to believe that one of the earlier, more bipolar records would contain a line as paternally conflicted as "My shorty got caught smoking weed at a concert/And if I smack him, everybody looks at me like a monster." The characters that inhabit the album are imaginatively drawn but persistently realistic: For example, I don't think I've ever heard a hip-hop album this enamored of health insurance.

His producer Ant has stepped his game up as well by matching Slug's verbal tics and slant-rhymes with spare beats. The accompaniment of "Guarantees," live guitar with no percussion at all, is downright spartan. It never made much sense for Slug's sly grumble to compete with re-heated soul samples, as on Seven's Travels, so the new focus on musical austerity reinforces the overall older-but-wiser vibe.

Not everything works. Slug sounds reserved here, with even tones, as if he's learned from the past not to over-reach with his delivery, and it would have been nice for him to stretch with an up-tempo song here or there. The fact that every track is in half-time only makes the album sound as bleak as it is. Plus, the final three songs sound like outtakes from something else, a disappointing denouement that seems a bit out-of-character.

It's said that someone can only be a lovable loser until he's twenty-five; after that, he's just a loser. By changing ever-so-slightly in approach, Atmosphere make sure that they're hedging their bets as they navigate their thirties. Life Gives You Lemons... succeeds by casting them as elder statesmen without diverging from the aesthetic that made them such lovable losers in the first place.

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