This political emcee's latest is his most focused work yet, even without a prominent single or emotional drive.
Three years have passed since Mr. Lif's last album, Mo' Mega. And since then, a whole hell of a lot has happened. The economy has taken a nose-dive as we remain deep in a recession. The real estate market has fallen apart. Unjust police violence is a consistent issue across the country. There are still plenty of working United States citizens who can barely afford to eat. But, hey, at least they have a job, because everyone seems to know at least a handful of people who have been laid-off. The wars and America's involvement in the Middle East also rage on. And, of course, the biggest news had to be Barack Obama's victory in last November's election. For those who voted him in, it was more then a chance to make history with the first African-American president. It was a chance to bring about change and regain hope, a feeling that so many of us have lost.
But for Mr. Lif, a friendlier-face does not equate to a trustworthy government. "All them problems going to be solved? Everything's all good, right?" he asks sarcastically in the tenacious I Heard It Today-opener "Welcome to the World". Clearly, his cynicism is as strong as ever. And he stays true to that defining personality trait while tackling all of the aforementioned headline-making issues across the 14 tracks. Unlike his past efforts, he's not taking any time to mess around on here. There is no throwaway sex track or attempt at gross humor like "Long Distance" and "Washitup!" off Mo' Mega. And good luck finding anything as lighthearted as "Friends and Neighbors", his take on friendships off I Phantom.
Whether he touches on all of those topics (the headline-spanning "I Heard It Today) or just sticks to one (the militant "Hatred"), Lif maintains his focus and never wavers. And it is that central theme that makes I Heard It Today more than just another Lif album. Even the more shit-talk heavy piece, "Folklore", has a political slant, as does what first appears to be a 4/20 anthem. But "Head High", which has the emcee spitting over a smoked-out Therapy beat, is more "I need weed to cope with this shit" and not "hey guys, let's get fucked up!" The same can be said for "Breathe". Over Golden Era-inspired boom-bap and a finger-plucked bass, Lif and Bahamadia, who steals the show, cope with stress and bullshit by letting loose some of the best verses heard in years.
That all being written, though, Lif's finest work on here is his straight-to-the-point and scathing three-part look at police violence. After a quick interlude, "Police Brutality", to set the story, he and Metro spit angry, disheartened lyrics throughout "Gun Fight" as J-Zone layers sirens and smashing percussion in the background. And it all truly comes together in the third verse when the two emcees rhyme back and forth like conspiring revolutionaries trying to find a way to end this problem or at least deal with it. Rounding out the trilogy is "PNN 1", during which Lif receives a phone call from his wrongly-incarcerated friend, who was arrested during "Police Brutality".
For all its strengths, I Heard It Today struggles in many of the same ways his past efforts did. Some listeners will be instantly turned off by his political stance, a less in-your-face revolutionary angle than that of Immortal Technique, but still firm in his accusations. And it could almost go without saying that others will be less than enthused for an album focused squarely on what is wrong with the world. But those are, if anything at all, understood qualities that Lif's fans embrace and his haters despise.
Where this record falls short is in the rapper's inability to show much emotion. Sure, he gets amped for the "What About Us?" chorus and the flames in his lyrics speak for themselves. For the majority of this record, though, Lif's voice, a monotonous mixture of Guru and Rakim, remains steady. And while he is well-known for his ability to move the crowd and dazzle live audiences, that same passion is rarely conveyed when he hits the booth. It's just a shame that someone with such fervor can sound so bored at times. Also, this record lacks a true hard-hitting single like Mo' Mega's "Brothaz" or "Heavy Artillery" off the Emergency Rations EP. While "Gun Fight", the title-track, and "What About Us?" come close, nothing on I Heard It Today packs that extra punch. And yet, even with those problems, this record is still one of Lif's most concise and well-rounded efforts.