Atmosphere: The golden age


It’s probably a coincidence that Rhino released expanded and remastered versions of the first four Replacements albums on the same day that Rhymesayers Entertainment dropped Atmosphere’s latest full-length album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. The album debuted at #5 on the Billboard chart, making it the highest-charting release in the history of Rhymesayers, a Minneapolis hip-hop label home to artists including Brother Ali, I Self Divine, and Eyedea & Abilities.

For more information on Atmosphere, see the Rhymesayers Entertainment Web site or Atmosphere’s MySpace page.

While Atmosphere might not yet have attained the same hallowed status as the Replacements in the echelons of Twin Cities music, the hip-hop duo’s inclusion in the “MN150” exhibit at the Historical Society (something even Westerberg and pals can’t claim), as well as their sold-out shows across the country and the one-thousand-plus people who attended the four-hour midnight release party at Fifth Element the night before they went on tour suggest that they’re on their way.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Justin Schell’s interview with Slug.

The last ten months have been some of Atmosphere’s most prolific. In that period, the Minneapolis duo—rapper Slug and producer Ant—have released not only four seasonal Sad Clown Bad Dub EPs (Sad Clown Bad Summer, Sad Clown Bad Fall, and so on) but also Strictly Leakage, a free, download-only album. While Lemons marks a continuation of the sound that’s made the group among the most popular hip-hop artists ever to come from Minnesota, it also sees Atmosphere striking out on new paths.

Lemons is the first Atmosphere record that Slug and Ant wrote together every step of the way, rather than crafting the instrumental and lyrical elements separately and combining them later in the final product. The result is a dense, organic web of interlocking instrumental textures and narratives. It’s also the first record to feature the Atmosphere live band, usually reserved for tours, as the main musical bedrock.

There are a bevy of surprising instrumental textures on Lemons. There’s a mournful lap steel guitar on “Painting,” but the most novel sound, at least for Atmosphere, is the new-found prominence of synths that shows Ant’s versatility beyond the soul, gospel, and funk samples—used to great effect on “Puppets” with Roma di Luna’s Channy Casselle—that have marked his production over the years.

“I’m not really a huge fan of live instrument albums with rap, but I am a huge fan of not getting sued any more!”

“We’ve been sampling live instruments, basically,” says Slug. “This way we can have the actual bass line all by itself, so we can have access to really do the things we want to do. But we still attempted to record them like they were samples. I’m not really a huge fan of live instrument albums with rap, but I am a huge fan of not getting sued any more!”

The album mostly works, despite some moments that don’t seem to fit—for example, the overly-synthed “Can’t Break.” “The Skinny” uses a provocative, but also slightly off-putting, metaphor of oral sex and female prostitution to discuss cigarette addiction. Also potentially cringe-inducing is the fact that Slug sings on Lemons more than on any previous Atmosphere record. While some moments are definitely better than others, this expanded vocal range allows Slug to change voices between, and even within, songs.

The album features many perspectives and stories—and in many of these stories, of course, the main character is Sean Daley (Slug). But these songs are more often meditations on the urban archetypes that populate his and other neighborhoods—the prostitute, the waitress, the homeless man, the drunk. “Even to this day,” Slug told me, “I still feel like I make records for my neighborhood.”

Slug may not yet have exorcised all the bones in his closet: his most famous character, Lucy, makes an appearance, though not in her usual guise. She’s represented musically, as Ant the skeleton of “Fuck You Lucy” (off 2002’s GodLovesUgly) as the musical foundation for “The Waitress.” The song, like its predecessor, explores a love-hate relationship between a homeless man and the waitress of the restaurant that serves as his main haunt. Fans might not catch this, though, listening instead to the sandpapery beatbox performed by none other than Tom Waits.

While this might overshadow a great contribution by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on the hangover ode “Your Glasshouse,” it is an appearance by one of Slug’s long-time musical heroes. For Slug, he told me, Waits’s songs “don’t remind me of songs, they remind me of actual stories. It’s really weird for me to think he’s on one of my songs.” Marking the first volley in a planned musical exchange between the two artists, Waits ignored Slug’s original request for a monologue on the song’s intro and a singing performance on the song’s chorus. “I’m supposed to collaborate on one of his songs,” Slug said, slightly gleefully, “and when he sends me the song, I’m gonna do all the things that I ain’t supposed to do!”

“I’m supposed to collaborate on one of Tom Waits’s songs, and when he sends me the song, I’m gonna do all the things that I ain’t supposed to do!”

The introspection that has come to mark Slug’s stories is also cast in a much darker light. Death and thoughts of it abound on the record, including the guitar-haunted “Guarantees” as well as the album’s opener “Like the Rest of Us”—with its subtle, yet jarring juxtaposition of a police siren fading into the plinks of a music box.

The apex of the album seems to be Slug’s own coming-of-age story, aptly entitled “Me. The track features wordless vocals by Mankwe Ndosi, intertwining with the soft sound of Nate Collis’s guitar. On the song, Slug speaks about first loves, alcohol, stardom, and his child—yet it might be the song’s last lines that are its most powerful.

You can try to fix my broken wings
You can know all the words to the songs I sing
But you don’t need to know what’s wrong with me
Unless you think you gonna come home with me.

In a mix of confidence and self-consciousness, these words might be addressed not only to a woman, but also to fans and critics yearning for a window into Sean’s life that he’s just not willing to open.

Recently, it seems, Slug has taken to more explicitly messing with the popular assumptions and expectations that surround him and his work. As on “Little Math You” (from Strictly Leakage)—which starts off with a defense of white suburban hip-hop heads whose authenticity is constantly challenged—the song “Yesterday,” which upon first listen sounds like the standard lost cause, lost love song that he’s become known for. In its last words, though, its actual subject is revealed: Slug’s recently-departed father. In that song, Slug briefly recalls another element of his past with the words “life, love, stress, and setbacks,” the same words he spit back in ’96 on “B.L.A.K. Culture” (from Comparison, the debut album from Beyond (now Musab) and the first solo rap CD produced in the Twin Cities).

Life, love, stress, and setbacks. The words not only sum up Atmosphere’s latest effort, but they also tell us much about the life of Sean Daley, the myriad characters he channels, and those of us who give them all an ear.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.