[30 April 2008]
Some folks think that it doesn’t take all that much to be a rapper: a decent vocabulary, interesting wordplay, and most importantly, an unflappable amount of charisma—to say nothing of production and other various factors. As Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell proved with their SNL smash “Lazy Sunday,” that you can be an awkward kid with no right stepping near a mic, and still pull off a fairly believable Beastie Boys (et al) impression. Basically, if you’ve got the stones to truly control the mic—not as common as you might think—you’re well on your way to making a splash in the hip-hop world.
And it’s primarily this reason that Atmosphere, a Minneapolis hip-hop duo and indie-rap mainstay, have never found success outside of their niche group of fans. Comprised of rapper Slug and DJ/producer Ant, the group’s prolific catalog is marred by Slug’s sheer lack of charisma and character, relegating many of their countless songs to drab stories of struggles and women troubles. Their latest release When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold—horrific moniker aside—suffers from sandy dry flows and unremarkable production.
The trouble starts right off the bat with “Like the Rest of Us.” Slug’s various non-sequiturs about cocaine binges and the dietary choices of pregnant women are frankly inane: “Got a little cocaine habit / But he says he only does it if somebody else has it / Do that shit, do that shit, baby / She went vegetarian for the baby.” The track attempts to show a world of delusion and wretched people á la “Howl” or “Wasteland” but Slug is no Eliot—and that’s overlooking the embarrassing faux pas of the “baby” / “baby” rhyme.
As When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold continues, so do the subpar rhymes (“Guarantees”, “Your Glasshouse”, “Can’t Break”). But what really stands out on throughout the album are the ear-grating choruses. Aside from the fact that Slug hits notes like Ben Wallace hits free throws, the melodies and sheer stupidity of these hooks is mind-boggling. The most egregious example is on “You” in which Slug actually sings (if you can believe it): “You love the people that love you / You hear the music they move to / You give your all to the fall through / But you don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know you.” Really, this is the best he can come up with? Slug’s other attempts aren’t much better as evidenced by “The Skinny”: “Fly trick, light it / Gon’ pay all day, but won’t never get away from skinny white pimp.”
But where Slug fails, you’d assume Ant would be able to assist. Unfortunately, he rarely comes through. A mediocre rapper can produce a decent album if it’s layered with incredible production—the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ effect, if you will. For the most part though, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is littered with beats that sound like they were made by an aspiring DJ who just got GarageBand rather than a seasoned producer. However, when Ant comes through, it becomes obvious why these two work so well together. The throbbing synths on “Shoulda Known” compliment Slug’s sneering flows while the bouncing piano of “Yesterday” is obviously the best fit for the MC’s casual, storytelling lines.
The real problem with When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is that, simply put, Slug doesn’t sound like he’s interested in the music he’s making. His delivery sounds obligatory rather than something that he’s truly passionate about. And Ant’s production simply can’t support the entire album—let alone the few songs it actually does. It may be the case that Atmosphere has produced so much work that they don’t have the quality creative juice for more. Or this album could just be a misfire. Either way, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is almost entirely forgettable—something that can rather easily be done in the group’s storied catalog.