Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is MR. Lif’s ‘I Phantom’
Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar in recent times have garnered lots of attention for making socially conscious songs full of scathing rhetoric but matched with savvy production. They stand out from the majority of their contemporaries as exceptions running against the grain. It may represent another shift in musical tastes that goes around every few years.
The over saturation of one particular style of rap music cries out for an alternative. Back in the early '00s an antidote was required to the production line of party rap and gangsta rap that seemed to be polluting the genre into mediocrity. The answer came in the form of Definitive Jux label, which was a beacon of clarity scything through the bullshit. One of those crusaders of truth was Boston’s Mr Lif.
Mr. Lif’s debut album ‘I Phantom’ is completely devoid of B-Boy bling and braggadocio, backed up with Insight, Fakts One and Run The Jewels’ EL-P on production, it has a bleak minimalism that represents a dystopian outlook on the ills of modern day society. El-P often incorporates a futuristic harshness via extensive off kilter rhythms but that’s reined in on 'I Phantom' and focuses instead on background samples and dynamic, mid-song switches of pace. This is in contrast to Insight who brings more funk based beats. Despite having differing producers the entire albums feels congruent.
‘I Phantom’ is lyrically dense with themes on the pursuit of aspirations and the struggle to raise a family in a setting that is weighted against those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Mr. Lif then wraps these themes up with science fiction geekery and pop culture references. Return Of The B-Boy is perhaps I Phantom’s magnum opus. Seven and a half minutes long and packed full of more ideas than most rappers manage in their entire careers. Like an Autobot, it transforms from a sleek rap to a rambunctious swirling tempest that keeps bouncing from idea to idea.
Even the skits like Daddy Dearest show the conflict of a kid trying to inform their distracted father how well they did at baseball. The ironically titled Success, benefits from the raspy, verbose delivery of Aesop Rock. It’s the rarest of things – a rap concept album. The very idea may seem like it would disappear up its own arse however, Lif doesn’t just make it work, but triumphs completely. His narrative has a natural flow and is to the point. By the end of the closing triptych of Iron Helix, Earthcrusher and Post Mortem, Lif has succeeded in creating an intoxicating listen.
On his Facebook page, Lif often asks fans to vote in "Tape Battles" of classic albums, sort of like a world cup of rap albums. Lif might be too humble to admit it, but those who vote on his Facebook page would no doubt consider 'I Phantom' in the company of seminal albums such as GZA's 'Liquid Swords' or Raekwon's 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx'.