This time, Atmosphere looks to other sources of inspiration
by Sara Brickner
On Atmosphere’s latest record, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, confessional rapper Slug does things differently: For once, he focuses on other people’s problems. Maybe it’s because he’s exhausted material from his own past, or perhaps it’s because he’s finally exorcised all the demons that made him famous, but Slug, who once wrote memoir, is now trying his hand at fiction. That might be why Lemons’ attempt at storytelling occasionally crashes and burns — it is extremely difficult to describe someone else’s feelings and hardships if you don’t feel those emotions and experience those things yourself. Slug rose to underground fame as a rapper who poured all of his heart out in his albums, opening the closet door for all of his skeletons to get onstage and dance with him like so many of his enthusiastic teenage fans (the album debuted on Billboard’s Top 200 at #5).
But on this record, the passionate fury that made him famous fades in and out like a bad TV signal on a coat-hanger antenna. And when Slug succeeds at telling someone else’s story, it’s usually because he’s got something in common with the character he describes. Like “Your Glass House,” a track about an alcoholic with a bad hangover; Slug’s relationship with alcohol has been documented extensively in past work. And yet, it’s where Slug diverts back into personal rhymes — like “Yesterday,” a track about his father — that the emotion of his older, more personal work returns in full force.
Musically, the album’s minimalist approach means that the beats get out of the way to showcase the rhymes; on one such track, “Guarantees,” Slug raps to a single guitar. It’s a strategy meant to showcase the rhymes, but unfortunately, they’re not always worth putting on display. Even so, the minimalism doesn’t extend to the whole album — Ant does a lot of great things with funky rhythms and old-school synth beats on this record — and that’s why “Shoulda Known,” a first-person track about a girl with an addiction, is one of the album’s strongest tracks even if the chorus isn’t exactly Slug’s best writing: “Shoulda known better than to fuck with you / Ain’t got nothing but too much to lose / Lost in the rush, don’t know what to do / That drug got you like I want you.” And yet, that song feels more sincere than the songs Slug’s sung about the fictional characters he depicts.
The one exception is “The Waitress,” a track about a homeless man. It feels like a breakthrough, and hopefully it is, because When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is a transition record. After all the time Slug’s spent looking inward, he’s starting to look outward, and he’s finding out what a lot of writers learn the hard way: It’s harder to tell someone else’s story than it is to tell your own.
Atmosphere, Blueprint, Abstract Rude. 7 pm Thursday, 9/18, McDonald Theatre. $20 adv., $23 door