“When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold” does not sound like any other hip-hop record. But then again, Atmosphere — the duo composed of rapper Slug and producer Ant — does not sound like any other hip-hop act. Still, “When Life Gives You Lemons” is atypical even of their work.
Each subsequent album by the Minneapolis, Minnesota duo has taken them in a different direction, but this takes the sharpest turn. Their last studio album, 2005’s “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” was hard-hitting and energetic. Songs like “The Arrival” made you imagine crowds on their feet bobbing their heads frenetically. “When Life Gives You Lemons,” on the other hand, evokes Slug sitting on a tall stool with a glass of scotch, a cigarette in one hand and the mic stand in the other. But this cool performance would wreck the competition at any spoken word contest.
Atmosphere’s newest album starts and ends with the little bells from a music box; none of the beats are very aggressive. Slug raps over real instrumentation, something rare in hip-hop, and some of the songs (“Guarantees” in particular) heavily feature his singing voice. Though he’s not belting out Pavarotti, Slug’s singsong delivery complements the album’s unconventional feel.
Listening to “Strictly Leakage” — the duo’s free-to-download and surprisingly amazing February release — is not the best preparation for “When Life Gives You Lemons.” The stark stylistic changes throw you off. But that doesn’t mean the album cannot stand on its own.
This effort presents the most mature Slug to date. The album’s liner notes read, “Dedicated to all dads.” Slug can play this one for his son Jacob, as he tackles topics such as love, poverty and drugs differently than most rap artists.
With each new song, Slug seems to move toward a complete mastery of the art of storytelling. On “When Life Gives You Lemons,” he rivals even Slick Rick or The Notorious B.I.G.’s best narratives. “The Skinny” strips away all the glory traditionally associated with pimps in hip-hop culture, illustrating the disturbingly powerful manipulative skills they use to control women.
Listeners looking for standard hip-hop probably will not care too much for this album. Even some Atmosphere fans may be put off by the new approach. But mad props to Slug and Ant for continuing to push the boundaries of the art form.