Right now, Mr. Lif is just about the uncoolest rapper on the planet. First of all, he’s actually skilled on the microphone and highly intelligent. This used to be a given in hip-hop, but now apparently not so much. Second, he’s from Boston. I love Boston, lived there for years, but there isn’t exactly a Hall of Fame for Beantown mic assassins. Third, Lif is way too prolific; this year has so far seen the full-length Live at the Middle East (can you imagine any other rapper on the scene releasing a live album?) and the Emergency Rations EP, and now this 47-minute album. Actually, let’s call that the third thing: what kind of nerd doesn’t pad his album up to 76 minutes with useless skits and 14 intro tracks and 37 extra remixes of songs that weren’t good to begin with? Come on, dude: what were you thinking?
And then there’s the most uncoolest thing: Lif Is Political. He’s a hardcore radical, a rabid anti-capitalist ecology freak who is somewhat to the left of Chuck D., if you can imagine that. The whole theme of Emergency Rations was that Lif had been kidnapped to keep him from revealing important truths about the government. And, as we will discuss in a moment, I Phantom might actually be a concept record about the real human cost of our modern lifestyle. How utterly unfashionable! And yet, how kick-ass.
The only “cool” thing about Lif is the fact that he’s signed to Def Jux — but that is pretty damned cool these days. El-P, RJD2, and Aesop Rock have all put out important records this year, and 2001 was no slouch either, with Cannibal Ox leading the charge. So I guess that does give Lif some underground status. But it’s hardly a guarantee of huge sales. In fact, I’d be surprised if I Phantom sells any significant numbers at all — not that I don’t want it to blow up huge, but we just don’t live in that kind of world right now. There’s no way that hip-hop this deep and interesting and complex could ever compete with “Hot in Herre” and the approximately 1 hrazillion songs on which Ja Rule does his whole “I have a cool voice but nothing to say” routine.
But Lif is a sneaky artist, the way all the great ones are. The record starts the same way another album might: with a skit about guns. One guy, obviously in trouble, asks his friend to hook him up, and his friend complies. Uh, wait — isn’t Lif supposed to be all positive and stuff? And the first real song, “Glimpse at the Struggle”, starts with “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em / Real deal McCoy ’em / This kid got gold teeth? Fuck it: coin ’em / So we can get some loot inside our pockets / My man who just did a bid said ‘you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it’.” A whole crime scenario unfurls, with Lif trying to pull off a robbery in a corner store. He ends up getting iced, which isn’t unusual in this kind of song. What is unusual is that he doesn’t try to glorify himself in the attempt. Not only does he regret having tried and died, but he also understands that this is all part of the plan: “Plus the government is smilin’ / Cause they smell the scent of death flowin’ / Just showin’ that that their plan’s running precisely / This nigga oughta fit into a wood box nicely”.
Lif wouldn’t be the first rapper to see the contradictions inherent in capitalist society as a conspiracy theory. That is very much the theme of “Live from the Plantation,” a work-sucks story: “Step into the workplace with my work face / Wince at my time card ’cause I’m scarred / Mad ’cause I sacrifice my day and it gets me / A triflin’ hourly wage of $6.50 / Nifty / Now I’m off to slave quarters / With a whole buncha other people’s sons and daughters”. He daydreams about offing his “asshole” boss, and he breaks down the economics of working so hard for nothing: “The function of our life is just to work and consume”. Bleak: yes. True: well, it feels true, especially on Sunday night when your guts all cramp up because you know what tomorrow brings. Crap.
But it’s not all evil bosses against the hard-working proletariat. Lif scores major points with “Success,” which could be subtitled “Sympathy for the Yuppie”–in it, he shows the economic and social pressures that lead to workaholism, and the toll that that can take on a family. This morphs into “Daddy Dearest,” a phone call from a kid to his divorced father who is preoccupied with his new family; this might be just a personal thing, but it’s one of the sadder skits I’ve ever heard. And then, boom, we go straight into “The Now,” which is both an examination of the pressures loaded onto today’s children and an indictment of the hurry-hurry pace of modern life. A killer trilogy if ever there was one.
And he operates in more than one mode, too. “Status” is a hilarious blues number, a cousin to L.L. Cool J’s “Cheesy Rat Blues” in which Lif is a complete loser sneaking into (and getting kicked out of) nightclubs without paying the cover fee. “Return of the B-Boy” is a seven and a half minute suite, which starts out as a lively shout-out to artists he loves and melts into an uptempo electronic battle track. And then there’s the completely bizarre “Iron Helix,” in which Lif and guest Insight do a weird duet about taking over the world, except that it’s really just Lif talking with himself, or maybe not, or something — anyway, the very end, where they yell “All opposition must die!”, is just pure dopeosity, and is destined to be featured in my video-game trash-talking for months.
But the last two tracks take us back to pure full-on depression scenario. “Earthcrusher” paints a pretty grim picture of the New World Order; in this track, the powers that be show their true colors: “We support this through silence and complacency / While our government ruled the world of the Masonry”. Lif spins a harsh scenario as if no one had ever done post-apocalyptic before, and depresses us all for a while before saving our spirits with the idea that he’s going to blast all these bastards with the 40-megaton bomb of his rhymes. And the last song, “Post Mortem”, a collaboration with El-P, Jean Grae, and Akrobatik, is the biggest freakin’ downer I’ve heard to end a record in many years. Everyone takes turns envisioning what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust, and it’s just not pretty. I guess I’m supposed to be moved to action by this, or maybe uplifted by Lif’s realization that his memories of the happy times would be his only consolation: “Watchin’ the Patriots win the Super Bowl / Grabbin’ that fumble from Ricky Proehl / Or my stereo providing me with rhythm and soul”. But it’s kind of hard to focus on the positive things when all Lif’s flesh has melted from his bones at the end of the song. Seriously. I mean, damn: here I was re-assessing all of modern life’s contradictions and inequities, and now it’s all over.
I’m still not sure how this disc will wear on me over the years — and I guess it doesn’ t matter. It just sounds good today: smart, realistic, nimble, harsh, funny at times, and a really effective critique of a messed-up society by one of its most intelligent chroniclers. It sounds like a mission statement. It sounds like victory. And it sounds great in my car.