Sep 17, 2002; Definitive Jux
Mr. Lif has an advantage over all of us. He’s got really awesome dreads. I mean, we’re talking Whoopi Goldberg dreads. I’ll be damned if that isn’t some sort of asset. Add on top of that the fact that he’s set up with one of the strongest underground hip hop collectives, El-P’s New York based Definitive Jux squad. Not a bad deal, huh? Sure ain’t. But Mr. Lif isn’t happy with all that. No, no. A lot of MCs can be called hungry but on his proper debut album, I Phantom
, Lif sounds like he ate the f
ucking mic. And the DJ. And now he’s lickin’ his chops, staring you down while you listen to I Phantom
is the logical progression from Enter the Colossus
and Emergency Rations
, Lif’s scathing first releases on Definitive Jux. Def Jux has a habit of gathering unique talents and exposing their strengths and both Colossus
do just that. Lif’s main strengths are his nimble, social criticisms. Arguably, his rhymes are as passionate and insightful as those of any other political MC and Emergency Rations
expounds this fact. But the EP also showed another of Lif’s strengths, the ability to elaborate his themes and carry them from song to song. Emergency Rations
turned out to bit of a mini-concept album. So why not just complete the deed? That’s what I Phantom
Art direction man Dan Ezra Lang’s iconic imagery is the first noticeable bridge between Emergency Rations
and I Phantom
. The intro skit is the second. Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire is the first Def Jukkie to guest on the album. He and Lif share a little conversation with Lif looking to get at Vast Aire’s gun. The Emergency Rations
album closer, Phantom, plays in the background while Lif alludes to the story of Emergency Rations.
Vast Aire also makes a reference to a lyric from his own Cannibal Ox album (Vast Aire: “Yo, my man Carlos on 138th." Lif: “You mean the midget?") Anyways, the first three tracks detail a dream in which Lif tries to rob a store but is shot and killed only to be resurrected by music. “A Glimpse At the Struggle" and “Return of the B-Boy" are both produced by El-P and retain his signature style, heavy on bass synths and haunting electronic strokes.
“Return of the B-Boy" is easily the best track on the album, a true hip hop epic if ever there was one. Clocking at over seven minutes, the track is basically two songs. The first half is classic El-P production. Lif flexes his muscles in the meanwhile, telling us how the music brought him back to life after his death in “A Glimpse At the Struggle." On the second half of the track, it hardly sounds much like El-P in the booth. In fact, the sound is reminiscent of some old 80's battle beat, just a great break that’s supported by some spacey feedback. I got to say that what Lif does on the second half is, in my opinion, one of the best hip hop verses of this decade. On the first half, the pace is slow and meticulous; it’s good but the second half blows it away. It’s double time compared to the first half as Lif takes on foes in his dream with lines like, “So I shift forward like a Sith lord with a swift sword/Flipped and clipped his mic cord." There’s a couple parts where Lif implements an insane amount of alliteration, consonance, assonance and just about every other poetic device in existence. Here’s one:
So much of this instance makes a difference
So I started to think with the innocence of infants
In a sense, I'm incensed, burn incense, I'm intense
Funny how the powerful scent just dents your senses
Don't even count a minute for census
I sent this razor sharp tone of relentless
Sequences that leap fences
Leading all humankind to deep ventures
It’s a hell of a thing trying to catch everything he says, quite a lyrical feat.
After the first three tracks, our hero wakes up to the truths of the real world. The next four feature Lif explaining the road to get his hip hop career off the ground, at the expense of his job and college education. “New Man Theme" is probably the stand out track from his grouping of the album. Fakts One controls the reins on this song. His style is earthier than El-P’s, a solid groove that’s otherwise fairly unremarkable. “New Man!" is shouted in the background of the hook and Fakts gets some nice scratching on the track. A lot of Lif’s boys from Boston guest on various tracks on the album, Fakts being one, Edan, Insight, and Akrobatik, the others. Fakts production works well with Lif and Insight I know is a decent beat maker but from “Status," you wouldn’t know it.
“Status" is a kind of semi-joke track, mostly part of the story (Lif can’t afford a better beat.) The lyrics aren’t bad but the beat is a “sh
itty, poorly mixed beat." Lif’s words, not mine, although that’s pretty accurate. Shifting perspectives and story again, the last six tracks are a sort of bird’s eye view of societal decay. El-P returns to control on four of the tracks and label mate Aesop Rock guests on the chorus for “Success." “Success" has Lif painting a dystopian family portrait: a man puts his desire for success over his family and as a result, his wife takes his son and leaves him. Aesop Rock’s solemn vocals are just as appropriate as El-P’s dramatic thump. His lines are, “Daddy has a name tag that said ‘Busy Working’/ Mommy has a milk carton that said ‘Missing Person’/ John had a new baseball glove and nobody to learn with / That’s oil and water tryin’ to mix on the same surface."
Insight redeems himself on “Iron Helix," a funky beat featuring ‘Sight and Lif trading rhymes. Lif is the voice of the modern man, tempting Insight and assimilating Insight’s tribesman character into a control-and-conquer mode. These last couple tracks are a kind of slippery slope, kind of leading to the album’s explosive closer, “Post Mortem." The track features Lif as well as Akrobatik, El-P and Jean Grae. Each in the quartet puts out an exception effort, especially Jean Grae, one of the better underground female MCs. The story ends with each MC giving their final perspective before the world ends in nuclear annihilation. If ever there were an appropriate track for El-P’s post-apocalyptic beats, this would be it.
is high on concept and high on talent. Despite this wealth of upside, a couple tracks hurt the overall effort. The intent is very admirable but sometimes the concepts come at the expense of listenability of the song. Mr. Lif’s talents as an MC never come into question on the album, each track is dense with his insightful commentary, whether it’s socio-political or otherwise. Supposedly there was even some contest that went along with the album. Golden tickets and stuff. I don’t know, I didn’t get one damn it. Because of that and my other minor gripes, I’m taking away half a star. In reality, this album would probably fall somewhere around a four. It’s challenging and “Return of the B-Boy" still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. However, the few nics in the otherwise titanium armor become apparent after continuous listens.