Atmosphere's MC Slug is the most empathetic artist ever in an art form — hip-hop — that is typically rooted in the declamatory first person. Even a synopsis of the best songs on the group's new album makes clear that this is no ordinary rap act: There's the song about the single mom with the deadbeat baby daddy, the one about the put-upon waitress (not called "The Waitress"), the one about the homeless man obsessing over a put-upon waitress (this one called "The Waitress"), and, best of all, the one about the toddler riding in the back of her dad's car while he tools around Minneapolis blasting gangster rap.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is "dedicated to all dads," bracketed by the sounds from a child's music box, and focused on the lives of girls and women. The album starts very quietly with the ruminative "Like the Rest of Us," which comes across as Atmosphere's answer to Kanye West's "Heard 'Em Say," a modest social lament laced with details like bumming a cigarette off a pregnant friend before deciding that "you gotta let people be hypocrites."
There's plenty of introspection here: The first single, "Shoulda Known," is one of Slug's classic one-night-stand songs (see also "Hair" and "Shoes"), where he finds himself in the apartment of a troubled goth girl. "Yesterday" is a familial meditation inspired by seeing a man on the street who looks like his dad. And "Me" is a soul-baring, self-critiquing coming-of-age story.
But When Life Gives You Lemons ... is at its best when it focuses on other people: "Dreamer" details the struggles of a young woman with two kids by the same no-account guy; "You" follows a waitress working off student loads and dealing with leering customers on a late-night shift, gradually revealing Slug to be one of those patrons.
When Life Gives You Lemons ... is the most musically subdued Atmosphere album ever and also the least funny, which makes the album less accessible than its best songs deserve. Staying with it through its 54-minute running time offers a big reward. The album-closing "In Her Music Box" is magical: This ironic, knowing snapshot of a little girl's mundane but not-exactly-ideal family situation is sad but incandescently beautiful and so real you can almost touch it. — Chris Herrington