The one-two punch of Atmosphere's much-hyped Epitaph debut, Seven's Travels, and its superior followup, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (which was free of the stylized "E" on the back cover), kept Sean Daley (Slug) and Anthony Davis (Ant) busy through most of the mid-2000s. The resulting tour for You Can't Imagine was their first with a live band, as well as tour-shy producer Ant's first venture as the band's live DJ. But following that, the Minnesota duo appeared to be keeping a low profile. Not much was heard from the group for most of 2006 and into 2007. It could be seen, in retrospect, as the calm before the storm.
In the spring of 2007, the band dropped "Sunshine," a sugary good-time jam, celebrating life's simpler pleasures. Featured on the silence-breaking Sad Clown Bad Summer EP, it was the start of arguably the second-most prolific 2007/2008 year-and-a-half span in hip-hop¹, spawning four EPs, a weekly Internet show, two full studio albums and a live DVD. But it was all leading up to the release of the group's sixth full length, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.
Lyrically, the major difference between this and other Atmosphere output is Slug taking the focus off himself. Whereas previous releases dealt with personal issues such as alcoholism and failed relationships (provoking many unimaginative music journalists to tag the group as "emo rap"), Lemons shies away from these themes, and generally tells stories from either an outsider's perspective, or from the point of view of a character. This lyrical approach, as well as the themes visited, are far more similar to a genre like blues than anything you'd hear in a hip-hop album which debuted on the Billboard top 10.
"The Skinny" is harshly delivered cigarettes-as-pimp allegory (in similar fashion to Nas's "I Gave You Power" or 50 Cent's "Baltimore Love Thing") with an electro feel. "The Dreamer" successfully juxtaposes dance-funk with the heartbreaking tale of a single mother. Another standout is "The Waitress," featuring beat-boxing from a surprisingly low-in-the-mix Tom Waits. Lyrics are told from the perspective of a homeless man with nothing left to live for except for the reluctant attention given to him by a waitress at a local diner. The newest trick in Slug's storytelling arsenal seems to be painting a vivid story that gets turned on its ear in the very last line of the song. Nowhere is this more evident and more effective than in one of the few auto-bio tracks, the phenomenal "Yesterday."²
Musically, the album is more diverse than anything seen from Atmosphere before. Ant brings a wide variety of styles to the album, from dense synth ("Shoulda Known") to sparse single guitar ("Guarantees"). The inclusion of live instrumentation -- everything from flute to lap steel to trumpet -- is also an added plus.
While the album is sadly devoid of any real bangers like "Watch Out" or "The Arrival" from their previous effort, this is the sound of a group expanding beyond hip-hop while challenging borders some fans of the genre would see fit to put up to pigeonhole it into. More art than entertainment, it's more likely to evoke melancholy than excitement, but it's more than worth the listen to see where hip-hop can be taken in the right hands.
¹ - First of course being the 'org-reviewed Lil Wayne, and his innumerable "Carter 3"-era mixtape releases.
² - Which also contains a nod to fans of either Gladys Knight and the Pips and/or the Eels' song "Susan's House"