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What rhymes with Barack?

Mr. Lif takes on the headlines
By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  October 29, 2008

RACE TRACKS: On his new songs, Lif declares allegiance to his black community and its candidate while also standing above both.

The story of underground hip-hop these days often seems like the inverse of Barack Obama’s story. Obama strives to transcend race, compensating for the “otherness” of his black skin and unusual biography by emphasizing his bi-racial roots and the normality of his politics and household. Underground hip-hop also has bi-racial roots, stretching back to the New York City and Bay Area scenes of the mid ’90s. But as the style’s concert audiences have turned overwhelmingly white over the past decade, underground rappers of both races have seemed to reach for another kind of racial transcendence, compensating for their loss of otherness by stressing their musical weirdness, or their radical politics, or their connection to the marginalized history of “true” hip-hop. Problem is, racial transcendence of any kind risks dislocation from our very untranscendent culture, where none of us can ever completely slip our skin.

Sometimes, however, Barack Obama reaches for that transcendence while acknowledging its price, as he did in his Philadelphia speech on race. And the black underground rapper Mr. Lif strives for something equally admirable in a new two-pronged project. Among other things, that project addresses the particulars of this political moment, declaring allegiance to his black community and its candidate while also standing above both. “I sit down to write my songs with much more of a Bob Marley mind state than anything else,” he points out. And that explains why this 31-year-old Brighton native, whose career stretches back to the underground’s origins, remains the most highly regarded underground rapper to come out of Boston. Although Lif hasn’t dwelt in our fair city since 2005 — taken away to Philadelphia by “circumstances in life,” as he tells me — the genesis of his career also confirms his insistence that “Boston will always be my home base,” and he’ll be revisiting that base this Sunday when he comes to the Middle East.

In late August, Lif announced that several tracks from his new I Heard It Today (which will come out on his new personal label, Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises) would be released one at a time every three weeks at sites like iTunes. The final track would be written and recorded after the election, and the entire disc would come out on January 20 (Inauguration Day). Speaking like a candidate himself, Lif stated in the press release, “My research has led me to speak with so many citizens nationwide, and the stories of your struggles combined with the knowledge of my own struggles have given birth to the project.”

As if that weren’t enough, he also announced that regular “Presidential Reports” — quickly recorded raps “on recent events in national and world politics” — would be available on his MySpace page. As he explains from his Philadelphia home (on a cellphone with a Boston area code), the “Presidential Report” downloads and I Heard It Today album were both inspired by his sometime partner Akrobatik, a Boston MC who landed a gig rapping about sports headlines on Boston’s JAM’N 94.5 morning show. Akrobatik also supplies some of the most memorable commentary on “Presidential Report #2,” riffing on a paling Palin over a decent if perfunctory beat. As Lif freely acknowledges, the “Reports” don’t aim for much as music. They’re more like freestyle battle raps taken to the national stage — or, if you prefer, the offspring of Woody Guthrie’s musically readymade protest songs.

The two album tracks released so far are something else. “I Heard It Today,” the title cut, sets Lif’s quick, smooth tenor flow to a beat by Willie Evans Jr., a Jacksonville producer introduced to Lif by Akrobatik. Its haunting hook and commanding syncopations suggest that, as Lif says, Evans is “a real talented cat who more people need to know about.” The urgent yet empathetic rhymes about the housing crisis suggest the same could be said of Lif. Although his decidedly leftist raps reach for a transcendent radical politics, his analysis is grounded in real-life problems and aspirations. The same can’t be said for some of his fans. Lif’s comments about the importance of Obama’s candidacy for people of color have incited angry Web-site comments about his support for any candidate. (No surprise that these objectors have mostly been white.)

“If I have to pick one of these two men,” he says, “I support Barack Obama. I think that we will continue to suffer because the system overall is fundamentally flawed: you know, a healthy market does not equal healthy people. So I think that, yo . . . we’ll suffer a bit more slowly. But the most dangerous thing about Barack Obama is that people are going to kick their feet up and be like, ‘All right, now we got our government back; that’s a victory.’ It’s not.”

So far, everything about I Heard It Today most definitely is.

MR. LIF + BLAK MADEEN + D-TENSION + TRUE INDEED | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | November 2 at 9 pm | $15 | 617.864.EAST or

Related: Mega star, The Big Hurt: The Obama jubilance debriefing, McCain in the membrane, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Barack Obama, Entertainment, Hip-Hop and Rap,  More more >
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