Mr. Lif
I Phantom
Def Jux
2002
B+

and so, the first track on Mr. Lif’s I Phantom isn’t a hip-hop crotch-grabber with a phat beat and ill rhymes, but a skit. We find our hero talking to Cannibal Ox’ Vast Aire – “where the hell you been? I haven’t seen you in mad long!” Lif is asked. “I know I haven’t seen you, and I hate to come at you like this ... but yo, I need a gun, man, I just need it for two days,” he begs, and suddenly, you wonder if this is supposed to be serious or a joke. It sure doesn’t help that Aire recommends Carlos the midget might be able help him out.


But on repeated listens to this record, you realize it’s a cycle of sorts of Lif – life, death, family, hip-hop, and the apocalypse. And that deal with the gun – to paraphrase Lif – “this shit is real.” On the second track, “Glimpse at the Struggle,” over El-P’s beeps, clicks, and bass-heavy production we get a first-person narrative about Lif getting shot. It might not occur to you immediately, but when we hear the heavy breathing, ambulance wails, and people shouting “he got fuckin’ shot!” this over-the-top device sure as shit registers.


Make no mistake about it, I Phantom is a fantastic record – the beats are top-notch, the delivery and flow ape everyone to Gift of Gab to Deltron to El Producto himself, and Lif’s story-telling is terrific, doing everything from name-checking hip-hop battles to proclaiming “I’m a man of the ‘90s - oh my bad, new millenium, 2002.” The concept itself, a seemingly true story about his life, seems original and rarely out of place – even when he gets brought back to life in “Return Of The B-Boy,” or the end of the world in “Earth Crusher.”


Even though each song is strongly linked to the ones surrounding it in terms of concept, the production (supplied chiefly by El-P and Lif) on each track is so varied that the album never allows itself to get stuck. Even when the concept starts treading familiar water (divorce), the fifty-second “Daddy Dearest,” a nearly beatless sympathy track is followed by a upbeat, gospel-like stomp in “The Now.” In “Return Of The B-Boy,” the El-P created production goes from electronic crunch to organ shimmies to fast and furious scratching - and that’s just part one. We even get a disco number in “New Man Theme,” complete with blaring horn samples and backup singers crooning “New day! (What’chu gonna do?)”


While the idea of a hip-hop concept album isn’t the freshest thing in the world, Lif is able to expand on it so each track is an individual idea upon itself. On “Status” and “Success” he moves from the early and amusing tales of his youth to the problems faced once anyone “makes” it in the world. The weeping, Automator-like strings and thumping bass of “Success” create a ditch that Lif, lyrically, digs a hole into, and helps us share his pain, and ultimately, help us see how skilled Lif is at switching perspective and character.


However, by the end of the record, the idea of real life and progression is suddenly completely thrown away - not even by a gimmick. The evolution of the storytelling is suddenly destroyed, and with eerie and sinister beats to match it, the last track, “Post Mortem,” tells a story of the world, post-apocalypse. In recollection of his life, Lif reminisces about everything that happened, all the way up until the very end. “I shoulda been at more demonstrations,” he wishes- and it’s clear that Lif, like us all, has regrets about the life he has led, but perhaps by releasing this record he has both exorcised some of them and created some new ones in the preparation for a follow up. Here’s hoping that the success doesn’t go to his head.


Reviewed by: Sam Bloch
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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