Mr. Lif: I Phantom
Mike Hess
10/19/2002 2:03:03 PM

"This is a four-chapter epic that grabs hip-hop by the ankles and shakes the Cristal-money from its pockets."

An innovative album or performer has killed every terrible trend in music over the past 30 years. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols slit the throat of disco. Nirvana squashed glam-metal. Now, Boston emcee Mr. Lif absolutely annihilates the current bling-bling blah-blah-blah hip-hop trend with his conceptual masterpiece I Phantom [Definitive Jux].

Overstepping the self-promotion aspect of hip-hop, Lif drops verbal heat-seeking missiles blueprinted in a saga that takes us from death, to reincarnation, and ultimately death again by apocalypse. Lif’s relentless flow and PhD mindset are long lost in the current rap scene, as he brings back a sense of rap for the thinking man that Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions did in 1988.

I’ll admit, 95% of the time I’m the first person to wipe my ass with the liner notes of a concept album. Nearly all of them are pretentious hogwash that you need to be either shrooming or disturbed to understand. Not so here. This is a four-chapter epic that grabs hip-hop by the ankles and shakes the Cristal-money from its pockets.

The album starts with a botched robbery that leaves the main character lying dead on the floor on “A Glimpse at the Struggle”. He’s then reincarnated and discovers everything that used to make rap great…Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Public Enemy and so on.

Soon after, reality hits home with “Live From the Plantation”, and we’re taken through an Office Space-type of journey through a shitty job that pays Lif “a trifling hourly wage of $6.50”. It’s a true-to-heart tale of an overqualified worker knowing he’s trapped in the daily grind. A comical daydream interjects where Lif kills his greedy boss, but then as he snaps out of it, he rips the system and economy with “Fuck reaching out to help the next there ain’t any room/Just close your eyes and block your ears and march to your doom.” “New Man Theme” follows suit with a brilliant socio-economical tirade showcasing the struggles of the lower-tier worker. Think P. Diddy or Nelly could ever drop lyrics like “Detonate if you hesitate/to slave or matriculate/you better participate/survival’s the interest rate”? Neither do I.

After getting a better job and becoming obsessed with money and time at the office, the character parts ways with his wife and 2 children, and basically ignores them in the hereafter. “Daddy Dearest” is a painful skit between son and father, and the ensuing rhymes in “The Now” are nothing short of a breathtaking domestic roller coaster. His son Johnny becomes fed up with his absent father, but it’s the final verse that makes the track. His straight-A daughter Kate becomes so overwhelmed with the depression of a broken home; she declines into a world of drugs, and eventually commits suicide. This is what hip-hop was supposed to be -- storytelling at it’s most vivid and relevant.

“Iron Helix” is a direct derivative of the roots of KRS-ONE’s old-school group BDP, with a hammering South Bronx-style bass line, paired up with Lif sharing the mic with Insight. It’s a track that sets up the foreground for two of the most compelling stories that have ever been pressed onto a hip-hop disc.

“Earthcrusher” and “Post Mortem” bring death once again, as a nuclear apocalypse rushes over the earth. Absurdly relevant to the current state of the world, it’s the possibility that this situation may take place sooner or later that adds to the sheer force of the songs. “Earthcrusher” describes the horrific effects of the bombs, while “Post Mortem” (which features fellow emcees El-P, Jean Grae and Akrobatic) is four personal tales of each person’s last minutes staring the bomb in the face. El-P’s tale reminisces about his friends and past loves, but it’s Jean Grae’s verse that every American citizen should hear. Grae chooses suicide over homicide – she’s not willing to wait for the bomb to take her life, and goes on a suicidal binge by taking pills, slitting her wrists, drinking, playing in traffic and ends it all by “find the nearest pawn shop/ the biggest gun, a crowded street /blow my brains to hell and let the devil come for me.” This spine-chilling verse darkly resembles what must have gone through the minds of those who chose to jump from the burning World Trade Center towers, rather than be consumed by the blaze. It’s morbid; it’s depressing as fuck… it’s reality.

I Phantom is a radiant hip-hop masterpiece in an era when the only thing most other rappers do is brag about the rims on SUV’s and how much champagne can be bought with record label loot. Bless you Mr. Lif, for not only reviving my hope in hip-hop, but for putting out an album that should make 90% of mainstream rappers want to crawl back under the diamond-speckled rock that they came out from. When the next groundbreaking emcee drops his list of influences like you did in “Return of the B-Boy”, your name best hold a high spot on that list.

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