The latest album by the Minneapolis hip hop group Atmosphere, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, seems to mark a fine maturation for the pioneers of suburbia rap. This is not so much due to it being radically different from their earlier work, but rather because it refines some of the elements that has made the group so unique since they first emerged on the scene in the mid-90s. The front man, Slug, has toned down his ironically rakish charm and focuses more exclusively on the propensity for the melancholy and the creative approach to storytelling that have always been amongst his chief strengths. Add to this producer Ant’s foray into live instrumentation and the depth this gives to his rather spartan production sound, which of late had become almost unforgivably repetitive. Surprisingly, however, these new developments were hard to detect at their gig, with labelmate Brother Ali, in London last night.

The concept was clear from the outset: they opened with Ali’s energetic statement of ownership “Watcha Got,” and followed it by the roughousing tour banger “Cats Van Bags,” on which they both rhyme, and Slug’s passionate declaration of intent “Trying to Find a Balance,” making it clear that they were there to rock the house, all the while balancing things with departures into the more reflexive areas of their repertoire. In other words a typical Atmosphere show that mined large parts of their catalogue for gems: they went as far back as the classics “Scapegoat,” “Today,” and “The Woman with the Tatooed Hands,” which remains one of Slug’s finest achievements as a writer and here triggered a round of “Atmosphere-karaoke” from a fired-up audience, many of which knew the words to most of the songs.

Slug was as always the charismatic centre, while Ali gave the show its requisite b-boy touch. The former is confident and carefree on stage, while the latter has a hint of disarming bashfulness to go with his attitude — there was a great moment, during the performance of “Star Quality,” when a cute girl in the front grabbed his hand and momentarily froze him (without impeding his flow, of course).

The two MCs are great together on stage, and so thoroughly experienced that they managed to pull of a hot show despite obvious fatigue from a nine-hour bus ride from Edinburgh that same day. Unlike so many rappers, they know how to use their voices to expertly negotiate a sound system clearly, they know that slow songs should be approached as such, not shouted throatily, and they know when to talk and when to rap. Behind them, they had Ant himself, who this writer has never seen before at an Atmosphere gig. He didn’t do much, except put on the right records at the right time and down Red Bull at a synapse-snapping pace.

Amongst the best moments was Brother Ali’s “Truth Is,” which had the crowd bugging to its rousing chorus, a downtempo version of the perpetually shifting concert tune “Shrapnel,” delivered with both conviction and intensity by Slug, an energetically delivered — if not particularly strong on punchlines — politically inflected a capella by Ali that brought out the best boom bap-instincts in him, and a sensitive rendition of the acoustic ballad “Guarantees,” which contributed the necessary emo-touch to the proceedings.

As indicated, this however was only one of three cuts from the new album (the others were “Puppets” and “You”). I don’t know what I’d expected — a more complex concept to go with the grown-ass man feel of Lemons? A live band? — but I can’t quite shake the feeling of slight disappointment. This was the same kind of show Atmosphere has delivered for years. It was very good, if a little fatigued — no encore, despite the obvious receptiveness of the audience — but nothing new for those who have followed them for a while. I’m unsure of whether to take the touching finish, with the strangely beautiful narrative of “Always Coming Back Home to You,” as a message to the long-time fans, and, if so, how to interpret it.

Atmosphere at Koko, London, July 18, 2008. Photos by Klaus Køhl. Read this article in Danish at RapSpot.