For those in the know, the release of underground rapper Mr Lif’s debut I Phantom is a momentous occasion. Having spent years building up a following in his native Boston releasing raw singles and playing awe-inspiring live shows, Lif was becoming increasingly hot property and was snatched up by the powerhouse underground label Definitive Jux. He released an EP on Def Jux this summer entitled Emergency Rations, an angry firestorm of an album that included on its lead single the lyrics “Headlines: Bush steals the presidency” and “Planes hit the towers and the Pentagon / Killing those the government wasn’t dependent on.” So it wasn’t just for his flow that people looked forward to Lif’s official debut.
I Phantom won’t disappoint in the slightest. Lif hasn’t toned down his politics—he’s just made them more personal: “The government is smiling because they smell the scent of death blowing / Just showing that their plan is running precisely / This nigger ought to fit into a wood box nicely,” he rhymes on “A Glimpse Of The Struggle.” Phantom is a concept album (as the belabored liner notes explain), dealing with the personal struggles of a young man and concluding with a nuclear holocaust. Yet Lif doesn’t let the overweening scope of the concept get in the way of his rhymes though, instead using it to rap about themes seldom seen in hip hop.
Tearing into the nine-to-five life on “Live from the Plantation,” he observes his boss, “He’s cool in my face but I swear I saw him laugh though / Tickled by the fact that I’m the modern-day Sambo / And just when I think that I’m about to go Rambo / I call up my friend and he says he understands yo.” He tackles social climbing in the tragicomic “Status,” whose raw beat, supplied by Insight, is, according to the skit that precedes it, due to Lif’s inability to muster anything more than a sandwich with which to pay him. “Hip hop is so wack, the beats are fighting back,” Lif declaims on “Return of the B-Boy,” a seven and a half minute epic that morphs from a funky battle rhyme to a sparse drum-driven speed verse in which Lif realises that his greatest opponent is himself.
El-P, Def Jux CEO, produced much of the album, and his potent influence is abundantly apparent, particularly in the industrial beats and dystopic family theme of “Success,” which recalls El-P’s own “Stepfather Factory.” However, Lif is a much more elegant, talented and hard-hitting rapper than El-P, and now he finally has the album out to prove it. Hip hop may be wack these days, but if anyone can bring back the B-Boy, I’d put my money on Lif.
Spacemonkeyz versus Gorillaz:
Laika Come Home
The title just about says it all. For all those who remember the blissful summer pop anthem of 2001, “Clint Eastwood” and its accompanying animated video, your favorite cartoon musicians are back—and this time they’ve brought friends. Dub remixes have a long and honorable history (for another classic see Mad Professor’s remix of Massive Attack’s “Protection”), and Laika Come Home leaves one wondering why everyone doesn’t go for a dub restyling of their albums.
There is little claim to originality—next to each of the song titles (fully a third of which contain the word “dub”) are the titles of the original music from the Gorillaz album. Yet the songs bring out entirely different aspects of the songs, turning them all into bouncy, bass-heavy, tripped-out…well, dub. “Clint Eastwood,” which was fairly dublike to begin with, is reincarnated here as “A Fistful of Peanuts.” It retains little to tie it to its pop-song parent, featuring new vocals from Spacemonkeyz Earl 16 and U Brown and abandoning the infamous “I’m happy, I’m feeling glad” chorus entirely in favor of classic reedy reggae vocals.
Perhaps the only flaw in the album is its consistency of style. The rhythms remain resolutely rocksteady and the basslines low and simple—a sharp contrast to the wealth of styles that abounded on the original album. But then, after the colossal success of the earlier album, the Gorillaz and their astro-simian buddies are content to take a less ambitious approach this time around. I defy anyone to not feel the stress massaged out of the their spines by the floor-shaking bass and cheerful, air-headed vocals.