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Atmosphere paints self-effacing shit gold 

Wednesday, May 7 2008
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On one hand, it shouldn't be surprising that rapper Slug is insecure, considering he has a song called "They're All Gonna Laugh at You," and another that tells the fantastical story of a woman who would rather have sex with her own tattoos than with him. Still, as one half of Minneapolis duo Atmosphere and a crucial player in the indie-rap scene since, well, indie rap started, you'd think Slug'd be comfortable with himself. He nonetheless says self-doubt informed not just Atmosphere's latest album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, but also the children's story that comes along with it.

"A lot of my peers and contemporaries for years now have been giving me shit, directly or indirectly, about how they feel I dumb my music down," he says. "Now, rather than consider that the only reason they say that is because I outsell them now, I actually get nervous about it. So I thought as a joke, I would go all the way and write a children's book. It doesn't get any more simplistic than that." The book is a companion to the record, substituting fanciful metaphors (say, a magical goat) for the album's hardscrabble characters (say, a working-class mother of two).

Forget about that magical goat for a second. The fact that Slug isn't rapping about his own life is the real news flash. For Gold, he penned stories about people he observed at a bus stop near his new house in south Minneapolis. "I needed to learn how to teach myself some new tricks," he says. "I looked back at my writing, and it reminded me of eighth-grade creative writing class. I [was] offering conflict, but I wasn't offering any resolution. It's like I didn't make it to ninth grade. So one of the things I wanted to do was to start including resolution."

Slug and Atmosphere producer Anthony Davis, known as Ant, overhauled the group's sound and feel. Musically, Ant abandoned samples in favor of recording actual instruments, and lyrically Slug stitched together a series of self-encapsulated, fictional tales. Starting with a trio of slow tracks, Gold feels more cohesive than Atmosphere's previous albums, but not always as emotionally satisfying.

Some songs work, like "The Waitress," about a homeless vagrant with a crush on a server, and "In Her Music Box," told from the perspective of a young girl who idolizes her father. "She sings along like her daddy does," Slug raps. "She knows all the words, but she leaves out the bad ones/Except 'bitch,' she always sings the word 'bitch'/Because it makes her daddy laugh, it's her magic trick."

And while there are resolutions on many of the songs, Slug often retreads familiar themes from someone else's perspective. "Your Glasshouse," about a remorseful woman who parties too much and sleeps around, falls flat because of its clichéd subject matter, which seems culled from movies and after-school specials.

Rest assured that Slug, ever the self-critic, heads off doubters at the pass. "I don't think this record is the epitome of what can be done in [this] style, but I definitely think it's a step in the right direction for us to see how far we can go with it," he says. "I see it still as a continuation of the baby steps that we take, trying to make an album that's going to make us happy forever."

Then again, if Slug were happy forever, he'd cease to be the lovable ball of angst his fans have come to love. Luckily for them, his insecurity seems likely to ride out for a few more albums, at least.

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Ben Westhoff

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