Def Jukie Mr. Lif’s debut LP I Phantom was quite possibly the most ambitious hip-hop album of the new millennium — ridiculously, impossibly ambitious, opening with a sharp examination of gun violence and American crime and then expanding its focus over the course of a 40 minute concept opus, running through issue after major societal issue (corporate America, suicide, divorce, materialism) until it literally burned its way to a darkly intense, beautifully-narrated disaster of a finish in a dystopian near-future of nuclear apocalypse. And Lif executed this ambition perfectly, taking the same unflagging, bulletproof flow that had so easily deflated the Bush administration on the Emergency Rations EP and wielding it like a crazed prophet against the injustice and unhappiness embedded within an entire culture. I Phantom was an album that you dedicatedly listened to, that left you feeling unsettled and paranoid after the eerily convincing post-nuclear-winter verses of Lif, Akrobatik, El-P, and Jean Grae on the chaotically barren, pitch-perfect beat of “Post Mortem”, an album that made you think.
Mr. Lif’s flow is steady and moderately-paced, often monotone and robotically emotionless. He rattles his rhymes out effortlessly, emphasizing with a uniquely characteristic half-groan-half-wince as he stretches out the words. He’s already shown a proclivity for sharply incisive, intelligent screeds against corruption, be it of the governmental (see: Emergency Rations) or societal (see: I Phantom) variety, and these played to his particular style of delivery perfectly. Lif was the irritated, take-no-bullshit super-spokesman of the everyman, flinching slightly under the relentless assault of The Man but persevering regardless and tearing down the constructs of power.
Now the year is 2006 and Mr. Lif has returned with a sophomore full-length, Mo’ Mega. As the press release points out, there’s no real shortage of issues for Lif to rip into here — Bush is still in office post-Katrina, America is still in Iraq, oil is still in a state of crisis, and genocide is still raging unthreatened in the Sudan. This is the album that he had to make, we are told, the masterpiece of the one-man Public Enemy, his unstoppable punch to the solar plexus of the chaotic times. And then, over the course of Mo’ Mega’ss 11 tracks, Lif manages to fulfill just about none of these expectations.
Where Mr. Lif’s skills work best when focused on difficult issues, Mo’ Mega focuses them on what feel like relative inanities. “Murs Iz My Manager” lightly satirizes fame but focuses mostly on name-dropping jokes about Lif and various celebrities, “The Fries” attacks the ubiquity of McDonald’s, and “Long Distance” tells the story of a long-distance relationship (including an account of sex with his girlfriend made all the more uncomfortably awkward by the juxtaposition of sexual background heavy-breathing and Lif’s wincing flow). The pervasive feeling of urgency and importance that drove his previous work has entirely disappeared, leaving in its place a sense of unfocused, bloated, and nearly-fatally-disappointing unimportance. Lif’s flow simply sounds unvaried and whiny here, devoid of any real goal to focus it.
The production, provided on all but two of the tracks by El-P, is strong enough on its own. “Collapse” is a wicked electric-guitar banger, and “Brothaz”, one of the few real political tracks here, is blessed with a messily-noisy collision of guitar, drums, and high-pitched tones. “Long Distance” is another great guitar beat with nice handclaps, and for the first verse especially it works cohesively and becomes a highlight, as does the discordantly pretty album closer “For You”.
For the album’s last couple of tracks Lif seems to stumble somewhat back into his groove, narrating personal issues in his familiar, trademark style, but it’s too little too late. Lif is still a solid MC, and this is still a good album, but far too often on Mo’ Mega he seems unsure of quite where he’s heading and, altogether, the LP fails to reach any sort of feeling of transcendence.