I really need to have a talk with whoever it was that said rap was just a "c" away from crap. I certainly couldn't have agreed more during my days in high school ("white guys with guitars" was pretty much the extent of my musical depth, and it's certainly not untrue today... but I'd like to think I've broadened my horizons since then. More on that later, time and inclination permitting), but if our tastes really do change (or mature) as we age (or mature), I've had to do a reevaluation of my opinion these last few years.
[It's worth derailing my train of thought for a moment to talk about Rage Against the Machine. To this day, I still don't much like Zach's voice. The music, almost universally, is bulletproof, but the problem with talking about what's happening right now is that even six weeks from now, it might be dated. That's the problem with To The 5 Boroughs, the problem with the "Rock Against Bush" compilations, and what totally works in favor of Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First, because it works well as an oppressive, evil government protest album no matter the situation.
Wow. A digression in the middle of a digression. Do I rock or what?
The point is that Rage didn't lead me towards rap, in the same what that the Chili Peppers didn't lead me towards rap: it was always too heavily grounded in rock, and even when it wasn't, I remained convinced that the more directly rap-influenced parts were the weakest. I never much warmed to Zach's delivery, either. I should revisit Battle for Los Angeles and see what I think now.]
I think it began with The Roots' album Phrenology, that's probably what changed my trajectory (well, not so much changed, but altered). For years, for years my principal complaint with "rap music" was that it was precisely not what it purported to be: music. Lyrics over a beat, that's about the extent of most of the "rap music" that makes its way onto the radio, as far as I could tell. I hadn't been properly introduced to the brilliant minimalism of Public Enemy, or the unstoppable, raging-river-like flow of Jay-Z, or the sheer awesomeness of The Roots. Sure, like every other white guy that had gone to private school his entire life, I'd listened to Beastie Boys albums, and I can say I enjoyed them, but Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA were never going to open up a new world of music to me.
And I suppose that Incubus is somewhat to blame for my belated introduction to the fellows from Philly, what with that much-maligned departure (which would probably be fodder for an entry all by itself... I should remember that) of founding bassist Dirk Lance and his eventual replacement by Ben Kenney, formerly of, yes, The Roots. While I've never been a Incubus "fan," I do think they put out three pretty darn good albums, which they followed with an absolute stinker of a disc, and that's sort of where the Phil Wrede/Incubus story ends. I could care less about Incubus these days, for there are plenty of other better, more interesting bands to subject my ears and mind to.
But, as usual, we're getting off track. The Roots. Phrenology. "The Seed (2.0)." A rap group that plays instruments, that doesn't just run looped and chopped and re-whatevered synths through a machine? One that's awesome enough for Michael Mann to include in the Collateral soundtrack? How could I not track this album down (easily the best of the overpriced records I purchased at the Virgin Megastore)?
It's tough so far after the fact to articulate what it was specifically about Phrenology that blew me away - was it the musicianship, the lyrics (and their delivery), the construction of the songs, or just the attitude, this brilliant balance between intellectual and barely restrained rage?
Once Phrenology was properly digested, we were off to the races. Common, Kanye West, Jurassic 5 (may they rest in peace), even my most hated of all rap artists, Marshall Mathers himself... All right, maybe that's not quite "off to the races," but for a guy raised on Atlantic Records R&B and bluegrass music, that ran for the hills of heavy metal as quickly as he could purchase his first Metallica album, that's, relatively speaking, diving in head-first.
Which I think kind of brings us up to date. Or at least to this date, which I believe is a little more than a week since the release of the latest Atmosphere record, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. If it's never before been possible to marry rap sensibilities to overly pretentious indie, post-rock titling, it certainly is now.
I don't really remember where I first heard about Atmosphere (and the only things I really remember are that they're indie rap darlings, and they're from Minnesota), and researching the group and its members on Wikipedia hasn't helped me one little bit. For the first time in recent memory, the Internet has failed at providing me quick, relatively worthless pop culture information.
..Wait. Further research has revealed that MF Doom is, was, or has been (I'm not totally clear... you can't be sure of much when you take twenty or so seconds to perform cursory research) on the same label as Atmosphere, and he collaborated with Danger Mouse on a record. Perhaps I learned about Atmosphere while I was researching Gnarls Barkley; the summer that St. Elsewhere came out feels like half a lifetime ago.
To continue to digress, in retrospect, it's ridiculous that I used to have such a vendetta against rap/hip hop; as a person who claims to revere words, and the creative use of them, the thought that I would rail against a musical form that places such significance on words, and the saying of words, is bizarre. It'll be interesting to look back in a few more years and analyze how my opinions have mutated once again (they seem to tend towards doing just that). Consider this my formal apology to good artists everywhere; if you're good, you're good, it doesn't matter what you do.
All right, with all of that out of the way, let's see if I have anything useful to say about When Life Gives You Lemons...
The first thing that jumped out at me when I opened the disc case were the liner notes. There were just... so many words in each song, and they were just dripping with fury ("Puppets," - which features a great Beastie Boys shout-out - and my personal favorite track on the album, "Dreamer"); I knew then and there I was in for a good ride.
I was never too enamored of the "bitches and hoes" school of rap, which is definitely why I've gravitated towards the artists in the genre I have, but I could never have expected I'd be listening to a rap album so preoccupied with single parents, downtrodden people attempting to make their way, or people just... alone in the world, with no one else to turn to but themselves. They're topics that lend themselves to stories, and I suppose that, as a person fascinated with stories, the record speaks to me on a pretty fundamental level. It also helps that the tales held within are told well (I've heard that previous Atmosphere records were pretty concerned with Slug's life experience, and that this marks a bit of a departure. About the most I can say here is that I'm in favor of it - the stories contained within are compelling, and told well).
I'm going to pull a verse from "Dreamer" to illustrate my point here (bear with me... he's verbose in the greatest possible way):
" A little girl was her first reason to breathe/ And a little man was the first man she believed in/ She gotta live right and do right by self/ She do for self, she don't want your help/ Afraid of bein' alone, but fear ain't enough to knock her off of that stone/ Gonna make that home her home, with or without a man that she could call her own/ Big boss at work is anxious, continues to hand her the wrong advances/ She passes the test, she knew the answers/ Quit the job to go take her chance with life/ This is life, we all strain/ While we pray for dollars and we work for change/ It's all the same, we all struggle/ Some times you gotta say fuck you/ When you smile and she doesn't return it/ Give her room, man, don't disturb it/ If it makes it hurt less to curse and fight/ Go ahead and hate the world, girl, you earned the right"
If the meaning of the album's title weren't clear before, it certainly is now.
I'm also compelled to single out the music that supports Slug's words. "Wild Wild Horses" is a lush, rich soundscape (the horns are just phenomenal), the flute in "The Waitress" reminds me of some of Marvin Gaye's work, the synthesizers in "Your Glasshouse" bring up a veritable well of emotions I have regarding some of my favorite 80's movies, and the propulsive percussion that runs through most of the songs... it's all put together expertly.
Oddly enough, if I were asked to compare When Life Gives You Lemons... to anything else, I really think I'd say a Springsteen record, mostly because of the stories. Having no familiarity with Atmosphere before this album, I can't speak to its place in their catalogue, but the stories that inhabit it remind me of the tales of the downtrodden characters in Nebraska and Devils & Dust. Slug's attention to detail is a lot like The Boss', too; the little things that he notes wouldn't be out of place in one of Bruce's songs. That's ridiculously high praise, and I don't know if I meant it as "high praise," because it's honestly the only comparison I can make.
In closing, I just want to mention the first thing I told my roommate Matt after I'd finished listening to the album, that I felt, while it was good, it wasn't something I would feel comfortable listening to all the way through. It's an intense record, for sure, but subsequent listenings have disabused me of that idea. In a lot of ways, it's best experienced as an unbroken experience. I think the record has an arc to it; it feels less overrun with hopelessness as it goes along (but maybe that's just the production, and not so much the lyrical content). All I know is, by the end of the album, I'm less depressed than I am at the start of it.
I have a new obsession, clearly.