Mr. Lif brought hip-hop back in 2002. In an era wracked by warfare and rising economic inequality, the Boston MC helped restore a feeling that had drowned in the mainstream. The album-currently being re-issued by Mello Music Group-was called I Phantom. The message spoke to us all.
Inspired by eloquent and irate predecessors like Public Enemy and KRS-One, the rapper born Jeffrey Haynes created arguably the most scathing indictment of life in the Bush era. Originally released on the seminal indie rap imprint Def Jux, Lif’s debut LP was instantly hailed as a classic.
The dean of American critics, Robert Christgau lauded its “conceptual ambition [and] detailed knowledge of what it’s like to work a job and raise a family”, and found it to be “underpinned by an analysis more Boots Riley than Talib Kweli or Steve Earle.” Rolling Stone raved that the album was “graceful” and that Lif was “a rapper as incisive as early-Nineties X-Clan…and far more crucial in these depoliticized times.”
But the record’s true impact can’t be measured by only critical praise. It’s longevity is more accurately gauged in terms of the hundreds of thousands inspired-the voiceless and disenfranchised for whom I Phantom spoke loud and clear-those sick of their soul-sucking corporate jobs, who gained new strength from Lif’s parables attacking the poisons of exploitive daily existence.
“After all those years of being a fan of hip-hop, I knew that when I had a chance to step up and make my own actual album, I wanted it to be special,” Lif remembers. “When I’m writing any songs for any album, I’m always considering what it’s going to sound like in 25 years. I ask myself, am I listening to the aspects of life that are real and true enough to still resonate a quarter century later? I’m glad this still does.”
If the definition of a hip-hop classic is a record that defines its time, but also updates the blueprint for the genre to go forward, then I Phantom succeeds on both fronts. It captures the jittery anxiety and woe of the benighted early 00s and also offered a guide for political rap in the post-millennium.
Featuring production from El-P and guest raps from El-Producto, Aesop Rock, Akrobatik and Jean Grae, Lif’s first record captures the raw spirit of the first underground boom. More specifically, it distills the intangible rush that surrounded the proceedings.
“The camaraderie was also what made I Phantom so special. I would basically go live at El-P’s and my roommate at the time was Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox,” Lif reminisces. “The studio was on the basement level of the apartment and all of us would wake up in the morning, play Madden, and make music. We were just so excited to be building this thing and really wanted to step up and deliver our best work.”
The proof is in the Phantom. Lif created a high concept burner that survives the test of time. In Lif’s words, it’s an “exploration of the dynamics of everyday life, and the pursuit of our dreams, in a rapidly decaying society.” In everyday terms, it’s a masterpiece.