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Reviews

Mr Lif
I Heard It Today Neil Kulkarni , May 22nd, 2009 13:12

It's a wonderful experience when the force of your listening habits (i.e your default setting of NOT listening) and the agility of that indifference gets skewered by an album that actually lasts, that adheres itself to your life rather than washes out with the rest of the week's detritus.

Previous to I Heard It Today to these ears Lif was a Barbadian-via-Boston rapper who'd done some pretty cool things (especially 'I Phantom') for El-Producto's Definitive Jux imprint. Of course, for 'pretty cool' read 'untouched-since'. I had Lif shoved firmly in that drawer where the rest of the backpacking bullshit belongs, gave him the nod in the ol' mental-Rolodex whilst never listening to his music again. If you've been inclined, you'll have had shelves of this stuff building since Rawkus and Stones Throw first figured how to suck in and swalla indie-rap dolla back in the mid 90s. Since that barely-noticed (at least in the US itself) fissure in the hip-hop landscape, non-mainstream US rap has been righteous always, compelling occasionally, but very rarely essential. It's not just your laziness, or the credulousness of its (lets face it) frat boy fanbase, that makes so much independent hip-hop seems much of a mulchness, the glut too inundating to pick out or care about individual artists – it's the fault of underground hip-hop itself.

For a while there's been a tendency in the hippest underground rap to simply emulate past tricks productionwise - way too much reliance on the ol' Premo/Pete Rock/Beatnuts skool of fugged-out genius (no bad thing but a dead-end nonetheless) whilst the mainstream actually blazed ahead, proud to bastardize and move futurewards like hip-hop should move.

Inevitable of course that a mainly-white audience would seek to hypostatize hip-hop as permanently created at some point in the mid 90s in New York with Marley Marl looking on. For most backpackers the fluid nuances of modern hip-hop were far less interesting than the spoddish/paralyzing collation of arcane and monolithic hip-hop knowledge (the whole Ego Trip/Fat Lace school of chortling curatorship – as pioneered by the colossally influential/damaging Grand Royal). For import-buyers and fans in the UK, you wondered what exactly you were buying into here, what 'alternative' was being presented: rappers' 'underground' status became the only thing they could rap/bitch/whine about (a queasy inverse-reflection of the mediocrity and materialist monomania that lyrically fucked up so many mainstream hip-hop LPs from the same period). Ninety percent of the underground simply rotated an equally-shite, inverted negative image of the mainstream. Rappers who could only rap about their poverty. Music that kowtowed to its own listeners expectations in as withered and chickenshit a way as the latest pitch-corrected BET-superstar.

On both mainstream and underground sides there are always too many goddamn guest-spots, precious-few rappers strong and clear and confident enough to roll with their own vision, hiding their poetic lack in the security of clique and cameo-appearances. Too good to sling or sell, but often too wayward and too patchy to cherish, the US underground has been a scattershot goldmine for a long time, only sporadically galvanized by releases (The Cold Vein, Esau's Whut Thee Album, APC's Arrhythmia, Kutmaster Kurt's Master Of Illusion, Edan's Primitive Plus and auld-pros like Quasimoto, the untouchable J-Zone, Coup, Doom, Ras Kass & OC can always be relied upon) that dared or dreamed to offer the same focus, commitment and invention that have come so naturally to the UK rap scene of the past decade (and if you ain't listening to Sir Smurf Lil, DJ Gone or Speech Debelle this year scrub the shit out of your clothears).

2008 gave a few pointers perhaps that the US underground might have the bit back 'tween its teeth again. Black Milk's albums with Fat Ray & Elzhi were undeniable. But I Heard It Today is a step beyond, a record that couldn't have come out at any other time in rap history (Lif's opening rant about “trusting the government now 'cos it's got a friendly face right?” instantly imprints the LP in time and political space) and thus a record that has the timeless feel of all the great lost classics you ever loved. Crucially it's a record that holds nothing back lyrically or sonically – the sheer onslaught of verbal tactics and twists Lif throws against the planet in the opening three Batsauce-produced tracks is dizzying, compelling, demands replay and absorption.

Finally it seems we have a solo American rapper less interested in crafting a 'Whats Goin' On' for the noughties than vomiting up a 'Maggot Brain', a 'Black Voices On The Streets Of Watts', a 'Sweet Sweetback' – the lyrics throughout I Heard It Today are precise yet pregnant with possibilities of suggestion and metaphor, clear yet cumulative in their raging impact, their ferocity, the attack-malformation of their abstraction.

It's the first hip-hop album I've heard from the US in a while that actually amounts to something more than just personal ball-aching or petty self-aggrandizement. Helps that the tracks cooked up by Batsauce, Edan & J-Zone all rock hard, rock better than any rock band I can think of right now, simmer and stew with the kind of psyche-touches and defiant anti-logic only hip-hoppers and Mark E.Smith can bring to these sources anymore. The Edan/Cut Chemist-produced 'Collapse The Walls' is emblematic of the perverse process going on here – where so much Latinate/fusion/jazzy hip-hop aims for an authenticity, a purity that irons out the misshapen stealth and surge of its idols and roots, 'Collapse The Walls' abuses jazz, pushes into the same kind of inarguable, dilettante heat of the Stones 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking', bypasses propriety and refuses to let you LISTEN until you can SEE the music.

Tracks like 'Breathe' and 'Gun Fight' rarely give you a minute to lose yourself, so prone are they to sudden interruption, sidesteps and pirouettes that quake the unsure ground even as it's falling from under your feet, an organized ruination of sound that perfectly simulates the chaos and numb horror of your every day. Even more satisfying is how free and loose all the producers here are with notions of sonic correctness – dig 'Folklore' and 'PNN' for how frequently the bass frequencies pile up into a fucked-up mess of drone, breakbeats sweating and writhing with dismembered life as they're tossed into the same incinerator, the limitations of waveform and sound-design repeatedly careened over, ignored, smashed into an overloaded din of distortion, digi-grind twisted into analogue aggravation via loops you can't place or disentangle. It's like the whole record was mixed on broken headphones and is now making your speakers fucking CRY with what's being expected of them.

In the midst of the maelstrom, as Willie Evans steps behind the desk to turn things a dark shade of electro (like Cursor Minor at 16rpm) on the title track and 'The Dawn' we get to the nub - hip-hop, if anything can still be squeezed out of that dry-husk term, should always be too much, too much for your mind, too much to deal with, should dazzle you with the freedom it scarcely earns, rather instinctively and intuitively insists on. Where so many modern rap albums (there's an argument I'm unwilling to fully formulate that round about the turn of this millennium hip-hop became a singles-form again, and has been ever since) carelessly stack filler next to sporadic killer and wind up being label-satisfying kindergarten exercises that barely make your brain (let alone yerbouti) break sweat, I Heard It Today is a home-tutored autistic headfuck you're gonna spend the rest of spring chasing with the butterfly net.

The usual reasoning being 'hey – that makes it truer to hip-hop in a weird roundabout way'. Mebbe, but what's thrilling throughout Lif's work in '09 is its refusal to pay due, its utter disinterest in fitting with any past, it's insistence on the moment, right now, as the sole launch pad for its explorations and explosions. In an era when rappers want to be your friend, your lover, your mirror, your teacher, your favourite actor, Lif comes off as nothing but a man in a room saying fuck you to the world. As gesture that would barely be applaudable – coupled with music this incendiary it starts sounding like a new plan for pop. With 'I Heard It Today' Lif knows, or has accidentally stumbled across, a real truism about hip-hop classics – all of them resist whatever's put around them, all of them are ultimately utterly HOSTILE to the rest of rap, have to be patricidal to feel alive. This is not a record that wants to be loved. I suggest you love it harder than anything.

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