Atmosphere’s reign hails back from 1989 through numerous cassettes, and since then, nine studio albums and 10 EP’s, each stamping a shift in their sound. A pinnacle throughout their evolution would be their 5th full length album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, which heavily shifted the duo’s signature storytelling narrative and played with different perspectives, bringing live instrumentation to life over samples, and ultimately attracting a more eclectic audience. Despite the album’s original release date, April 22, 2008, the LP is seeing special treatment with a re-release for its tenth anniversary this month. Being packaged into two vinyl LP editions — the standard anniversary edition and the limited deluxe anniversary edition — both will feature custom packaging details and extra perks for any fan or collector.
As the duo continue to make waves, currently on tour for their latest release Mi Vida Local, we decided to revisit what made this album and its direction standout, ultimately branding Atmosphere as a household name for narrative, indie hip-hop. With the success of God Loves Ugly — which heavily brought Sean “Slug” Daley’s aggressive tales to the center — to their Sad Clown series, #9-12, and You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, Atmosphere’s sharp wit, slick productions, and genuine lyricism guided a listener through their own troubles and insecurities. Almost coming at a crossroads and being hit with an epiphany, the 15-track album (standard edition, re-release will carry two bonus tracks) dances around the “what is”, “what if’s”, and the faults of a human, breathing life into the adage, life is what you make it.
The album is introduced by “Like The Rest Of Us” which eases a listener to Slug’s carefree delivery, hushed tone, and Anthony “Ant” Davis’ happy-go-lucky production. Time is a major element on this album and obviously plays a role in Slug’s perspective: “See I’ve been here for thirty-some years / Lookin’ at myself in the same dirty mirror,” hinting towards a realization factor that will be dissected. As the track carries on, hypocrisy is propelled forward, nodding that each human contradicts themselves and these threads connect us all, being cut from the same cloth — “Ya gotta let people be hypocrites / Count your blessin’s and mind yo business.”
Ant carries the keys over to the next track “Puppets” and douses the force with a heavier hand, allowing Slug’s emotive tone to consume its entirety. By the second minute and verse, the track begins its shift from a character who is blaming the world (God, father, and Santa Claus) for his problems, similar to its predecessor, to a fear based retrospective for the narrator: “A lot of pressure in the middle of those shoulders / And we ain’t getting nothin’ but older / Ain’t nothin’ changed but the day we run from / But nobody knows that better than you, huh?”
“Dreamer” is an equal testament of the album’s theme. Live instrumentation and arrangements are a focal point during this era versus samples previously heard. The track focuses on a young woman’s struggle and pitfalls, bringing listeners in with her optimistic heart and once again allowing a shift as Slug is no longer the center of assessment. Slug meshes words, ideals, and the strength of a woman beautifully, similarly heard on a track 8 years prior, “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands.”
Control, or lack of control, is also a reoccurring chapter discussed. “The Skinny” is penned in harsh and vivid metaphors leading back to prostitution and overall codependency when you relinquish your own will. “Shoulda Known” takes a darker, yet funky approach as Slug depicts the drug infused lifestyle of women he’s meeting. While these are familiar themes, the delivery and production becomes sharper.
“Painting” and “Your Glasshouse” are disdained and contemplative, shuffling from destructive behavior to escape through alcoholism and any other means. Both tracks carry a somber and darker shade on the production, loosely floating for Slug.
In addition of the same sentiments of being “stuck,” the album’s second single “You” provided the cross over from underground to mainstream with a similar funky, bass riff and insanely catchy hook revolving around the mundane 9-5. Regardless of it not being the strongest penned track on the album, 10 years later this track can be appreciated during aging. Simple, upbeat, and ironically the commercial lemon that flourished with “mainstream hype,” “You” tastefully crossed that bridged and expanded Atmosphere’s audience similarly felt on “Can’t Break” and the deluxe feature bonus track, “Vanity Sick.”
On the second half of the album, stories take a clearer shape as Slug’s aggression marries acceptance with polished maturity. Every track is truly a gem and plays a role towards Atmosphere’s development into “dad rap” that we can hear today. An older set of eyes peer on his open letter to his father on “Yesterday” acknowledging rage and unsaid words. The track’s discrete arrangement never addresses who Slug refers to until the last line that grips the minimalist and joyous keys, juxtaposing each verse.
Autobiographical cuts appear on “Me” and “Guarantees,” simultaneously continuing the album’s connective theme. Slug’s pen reflects a somber aspect of what is secure in the world on “Guarantees” backed solely with an electric guitar and solidifies the solitude in his words. On the other side of that coin, “Me” waltzes over family issues, resurfacing his own image as a clown.
The other bonus track “Keyboards” seemed to echo from the past, which may have been a factor in it not being included in the original line-up. This is not to say that this track isn’t great due to its omission, personally speaking, it sits highly on the shelf among many others. Compared to other tracks that intertwine on Lemon, “Keyboards” revisits a first person heart break and self-depreciating humor and sarcastic spoken word breaks: “You are teaching yourself to play the keyboard? What kind of bullshit is that? Oh, are you for real? That’s why you didn’t call me back?”
Then there’s “Wild Wild Horses,” which seems to be the acceptance of letting go, a notion that only could happen after “Keyboards.” The horns that are dispersed throughout the hook add a triumphant sense of resolution. A full circle story that follows youth to manhood in the form of the main character understanding why his lover needed to leave. Trickling back to the very reason why, vividly looking at all the ones who loved him now peaking from the crowd, this is when the lemon is finally painted gold.
Many selections on this album bleed from a similar vein, becoming a rich shot after years of fermenting, now ready for a listener to catch up with Atmosphere. “The Waitress” being one of them; multi-layered holding onto this belief. Whimsical and led with a bright flute, this track’s production once again juxtaposes Slug’s heavy tale and revolves around family, continuing on the album’s final track “In Her Music Box.”
During its original release, my own anger would not have allowed me to absorb the album’s beauty, specifically on “Wild Wild Horses.” There isn’t as much straightforward anger heard on this collection, or commercial pop dribble, which mirrors the point in time of the duo and their growth. From production, delivery, tone and lyrics, this album appeased the mainstream and underground by Atmosphere’s authenticity tapping into the universal thread at one point in life, we will all be dealt lemons.
Paint that shit gold.
Standard and deluxe vinyl are available now.
Cover photo: Dan Monick, courtesy of Rhymesayers