Review Summary: You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Not Having...
You can argue if you wish, but it would only be delaying the inevitable outcome- times are bad for hip-hop. What else would make a “legend of the game” such as Nas pen a song titled “Hip-Hop Is Dead”? What else could possibly explain “music” such as Soulja Boy, Flo Rida, Dem Franchise Boyz and countless other crunktacular illiterates storming the charts, clubs and airwaves? What else could explain the total lack of any hip-hop with substance getting any mainstream attention (save for Kanye and maybe Lupe Fiasco)? It’s times like these that an album must come along and defy the odds, and it appears that 2008’s saving grace has come in the shape of Atmosphere’s latest, with the smirk-inducing title of When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That *** Gold
Of course, Atmosphere are no newcomers to hip-hop, having been around since the early nineties. It has only been in recent years, however, that the duo (MC Slug and DJ/producer Ant) have bubbled under mainstream conscience, notably with the featuring of 2003 single “Trying To Find a Balance” in the Tony Hawk Underground 2 videogame, and the critically-acclaimed album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having
in 2005. It seems now the time is right for Atmosphere blast out from the underground- and they could not have made a better record to do it with. Lemons
is a collection of dark, diverse and challenging hip-hop, with brilliance shining through in both the vibrant lyrics, dealing with everything from young families to stalkers, and ambitious production, leaving no rock unturned between funk, rock, electronica, and even grime.
is easily one of the best hip-hop albums of the past decade. Few can come close to Slug’s intricacy, dynamism and honesty with his lyrics, dealing with everything from coming from not achieving your goals (“Not every pony grows up to be a Pegasus”, he muses on opening track “Like The Rest of Us”) to drug addiction (““Puncture a hole/put a hero in”, from single “Shoulda Known”). But the greatest thing about Lemons
is the fact the record’s themes are deep and personal; but at the same time, they are represented through many different perspectives.
Album highlight “Dreamer” tells the story of a classic case scenario of teenage pregnancy- and through it, the bravery of the mother- “Afraid of being alone/But fear ain’t enough to knock her off o’ that stone/Gonna make that home her home/With or without a man that she can call her own”; and the ultimate cowardice of the father- “Told that boy/”Go get employed”/He put on his best shirt/said he wasn’t coming back until he gets work/She knew what that part meant/So she swept every piece out that apartment”.
Other characters throughout the album range from the heartening (album closer “In Her Music Box” tells of a daughter in the midst of Mommy and Daddy’s strained relationship, and her musical escapism from it all- “When Daddy picks Mommy up, they fight/They fight about money/They fight about life/So she concentrates so, so hard on the music/and loses herself inside the bass and the movement”) to the downright creepy (“The Waitress” is all about a hobo who becomes a regular at a cheap cafe, albeit purely for his infatuation with one of the waitresses- “Look, lady/I’m homeless/I’m crazy/I’m so hopeless/I’m suicidal daily/If you and I can’t coexist, let’s fake it/Cause I ain’t got the energy it takes for this relationship”). It’s certainly not what you would expect to find in an era where “ringtone rap” reigns supreme, and can definitely be seen as a breath of fresh air.
One of the best twists, however, comes in the form of “Yesterday”, one of the tracks with the heart firmly placed on the sleeve. Ambiguity weaves through the lyrics that address someone who could have been an old friend or girlfriend, who the main character believes they saw in the street. Near the end, however, the person is revealed to be the character’s father. Once this is established, the song takes on a whole new meaning, adding a further layer of sentimentality to the already highly personal lyrics.
At the centre of every tale on Lemons
, of course, is Atmosphere themselves. No matter what the character on each track, Ant and Slug make the entire affair hugely listenable with their respective skills. Slug, as an MC, often has very unique flows that are above and beyond the monotone of many of his contemporaries. He incorporates a mix of singing and rapping on tracks like “Like The Rest of Us”, “Puppets” (which features sassy Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto on backing vocals) and “Guarantees”, and it makes for very enticing listening throughout. Even when Slug simply raps, there is a lot of world-weariness, pain and, quite often, anger present in his voice that simply isn’t found in many MCs of today.
Producer/DJ Ant provides backdrops for the raw intensity of Slug’s vocal delivery that reflect the song’s mood and intents to perfection. Sometimes there is a full-band sound with a funky mix of keys, bass and guitar, as found on “You” and “Dreamer” (each with killer bass lines); other times a more experimental approach is taken- “Your Glasshouse” sounds like a mix between TV On The Radio and Battles, whilst songs like “The Skinny” and “Can’t Break” are centred musically around the synthesizer and grime-inspired beats. The best song on the album, however, is all about simplicity.
There is nothing more to the four-and-a-half-minute “Guarantees” than a soulful electric guitar and Slug’s unique mixture of singing and rapping. The lack of beat, or any further layering at all, puts the spotlight purely on the heart-wrenching lyrics, painting the story of a young man in a stress-filled life, having issues with everything from his family, to his neighbours, to money, to his own need to escape from it all (“I’ma talk to my cigarette and that television set/It doesn’t matter what brand or station/Anything to take away from the current situation”).
At this time, it appears doubtful that many songs will better “Guarantees” this year in terms of overall excellence- it is almost a certainty that the song will have a lasting impression on whoever listens to it.
Without an utterance of hype behind the release, Atmosphere have thrown their hat in to the ring for album of the year, already a serious contender. Through fifteen extravagant and masterfully executed stories, the duo have given us an album of solid gold- no painting required.