Sean Daley, better known as Slug of Atmosphere, and Charles Baxter are kindred spirits.
Both men hail from Minneapolis, Minnesota and make as much clear in their work. In many circles, Baxter is heralded as a master of the short story for his use of pivot and leveling subject matter. In 2008, with the release of Atmosphere’s sixth studio album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Slug unknowingly rose to the same ranks.
Baxter’s 2011 collection, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, was partially written in the same time frame as Lemons, twisting through the same Minnesota corners. Both the album and the collection dedicate themselves to making meaning out of everyday life. Baxter’s 2015 collection, There’s Something I Want You To Do: Stories, takes this pursuit a step forward. The stories examine demand and request, and how guilt can change the course of ordinary lives.
In much the same way, Lemons asks of Atmosphere—and Atmosphere asks of us—to hear and retell the stories of ordinary-turned-extraordinary life in Minnesota. The album is a celebration of the truth of humanity, complete with shitty confetti. The bitter and boozing Slug of God Loves Ugly and You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having is replaced by a man who found sagely status within his jaded character.
“For a while Atmosphere was tagged as emo rap,” reads a 2008 New York Times review. “Now that Slug (whose real name is Sean Daley) is in his 30s and Atmosphere has a loyal audience, he has almost—not quite—run out of confessions… He doesn’t judge other people harshly—he’s been seeing his own flaws for far too long.” That’s not to say previous albums lacked humanity, but simply that Slug is finally extending that approach to the universal.
Where prior records were packed with cautionary tales, Lemons appeals to our ethos through Baxter-like pivots. Consider the sucker punch of “Yesterday,” one of three Slug-focused songs on the album. At first glance, it plays like a one-off about a soured relationship but transforms on the final word of the final verse—the emotional gut punch of the album. Instantly, the pastel keys feel weightier as Slug breaks into the final hook of the track in memory of his passed father. Thousands of plays later, “Yesterday” carries as much freight.
Our heart bleeds for the “Dreamer,” and her “tight hold on that hope” as much as it does for the young girl escaping her father’s criminal ways on “In Her Music Box.” Detest turns to heartache on “The Waitress,” where the final pivots allude to a homeless man potentially being the waitress’ absentee father. “Guarantees,” sometimes considered the group’s perfect song, aches with the blues, from the characters to the guitar work. The leading emotion of Lemons is far more refined than the pity that bogged down Atmosphere’s earliest work. Something about this flavor of hurt is inviting.
Of course, none of this oral history and maturation would have been executed without the lush instrumentation and detour from boom bap taken by Anthony Davis, or simply, Ant.
On several occasions, Ant has admitted his desire to include live instruments, but money was tight. Finally, as Atmosphere grew out of local notoriety and into the global stage, a new budget offered the duo an opportunity to outfit their album with an unprecedented-for-them sound. From the first notes, we hear this record as a more tender offering. The snares have more crunch, the bass is more responsive, due in larger part to Ant and Slug pouring over four-bar sections of lyrics together until the music and message moved as one.
As Slug raps from perspectives familiar and not—blue-collar workers, single mothers, addicts, homeless men, waitresses—the soundscape Ant tools and retools across the album takes on its own omniscient character. In 2018, too often, the beat has to save the track. Ten years ago, production worked in unison with the writing, and Lemons plays like a testament to the importance of the rapper-producer relationship.
With Lemons’ multi-perspective format, Slug and his pen could take a much-needed breath. Writing the album must have been, on some level, necessarily escapist and at the very least greatly cathartic. The distance from himself on this album allowed Slug to return to internality with something fresh to bring into the fold for his personal stories. With that, Slug labeled Lemons their most personal album to date: “This particular record, I actually feel like I’m dropping more of my vision and my opinions on things than I was even in the earlier stuff when I was talking more so about myself, and my issues, and my problems.”
Commercially, too, Lemons is Rhymesayers' golden child. The record debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200—the highest-charting release for the independent label. It was the first Atmosphere album to break into the top ten, and when their past efforts were often critically maligned, this external validation gave the duo some institutional weight—not that they needed it, considering their healthy cult fanbase. It was also the first time anyone ever told the group they've made a definitive record.
Within the context of their studio albums, Lemons is a key transformative moment. If we are being cheeky, we could say that Lemons was the pivot to dad rap. A bit more high-brow, Lemons is an ode to every dark twist and pitfall of fatherhood and parenting, giving us the tale of a wide-eyed and persistent single mother (“Dreamer”) in tow with a homeless man who was a better father in lives passed (“The Waitress”), and the slinking memory of Slug’s own father on “Yesterday.”
Following the release of Southsiders in 2014, Slug went on the record to say he can’t keep making songs with the intention of saving the world. He can’t keep waking up passed out in the back of cars, but he can’t make buckle-up-and-hold-hands rap, either. That implicit balancing act, birthed out of growing up in a perpetually young man’s game, led to Southsiders being made for the love of writing, in the same vein as Lemons was made for the love of narrative.
Slug’s imminent pursuit of passion, too, evolved out of his security within the Twin Cities hip-hop scene. During a 2008 interview with Justin Schell of Twin Cities Daily Planet, Slug explained how the local scene heralded Atmosphere as either their saviors or the worst thing to happen to the Midwest. Within that polarizing view, however, Slug admittedly found freedom.
“Now I can finally do whatever the fuck I want because if you already know you hate me, then why are you worried about what I’m doing?” He contended. “If you already know that you believe in me, you can stop and judge what I’m doing. I feel like I’ve been able to take a step outside of the scene, and take a look back at it from the outside.”
Meaning, Southsiders grew to be an extension of the project begun on Lemons, as an album made in the service of his passion for language. Pursuing their passions as a legacy act is a major risk that may not have always critically paid off, but it kept Atmosphere in the game and evidently far from tuckered out. As Slug always says, Atmosphere will keep making music until the day they’re fired.
Therein lies the When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold legacy. Had Atmosphere not taken that particular pivot in that particular moment, their tenure in hip-hop may have been cut short by virtue of burning out. Considering how Slug affectionately refers to every LP as their seventh LP, poking fun at their deep catalog, it’s easy to imagine Atmosphere as a duo always on the line of immeasurable, bone-deep exhaustion.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold may very well have been the reprieve that kept Atmosphere going for these 10 years, and for that reason alone, the album deserves to be celebrated.