Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Perhaps it’s unfair to begrudge Mr. Lif the right to record a stinky-booty song. Every hardworking MC is entitled to a little alleged comic relief, and hip-hop has long shown an affinity for the mundane facets and pitfalls of sex. But Lif’s not every MC, and his previous record, 2002’s I Phantom, wasn’t just any rap album. It began with Lif asking a friend for a handgun and ended with a cataclysmic landscape of fire and ash. In between, it examined the cause and effect of urban economics, from corporate-sanctioned drudgery to the realities of growing up with absentee, work-three-jobs parents. It was heady stuff, rapped with sass and confidence.
Mo’ Mega, by contrast, is thematically scattershot and packed with easy targets. Lif’s talent with bitter-tongued lyrics and acid-poet imagery hasn’t weakened, but somewhere along the way, he failed to recognize that the fullness of his previous disc’s worldview elevated him above all the ego-tripping hacks who blend self-serving, undergrad-level political protest into the eternal quest for hip-hop lucre.
So, yeah, on to that stinky-booty song. “Washitup!” is a direct descendant of Biz Markie’s “The Dragon” and any other hygiene-promoting single that ever graced a boombox. Lif’s attempt to rejuvenate the genre is cosmetic at best: He claims a pseudo-reggaeton beat, assumes a Caribbean accent, then starts explaining his qualms about a particular rendezvous: “Kiss ye pon she belly, then I get by she navel/All-a-sudden notice somethin’ smellin’ unstable.” The phrase “fish bait” is incorporated. His only advice? See: title.
The beat is sweet, though—and it’s the most pop-ready piece of music on a disc full of textured grooves by Def Jux high priest El-Producto, who hasn’t lost any sense of how to induce a B-boy head trip. Of course, there are tracks where Lif’s angry-man rhymes and El-P’s boom-bap brutalism combine into something significant: “Brothaz,” with its multilayered Bomb Squad intensity and direct critiques of the Western response to African genocide, holds up well against Lif’s previous efforts. “If this was Kosovo, it’d be over bro/But it’s brothers so it equals no coverage,” he raps with Rakim-like purpose. “People drawn and quartered, castrated, slaughtered, burned, disgraced, gang-raped, displaced/While the rest of the world just turns face to chase some economic goals.” The Bush administration gets its customary name-check, and Lif adds a dagger about the responsibility for Rwanda: “Fuck Clinton, too/You ain’t really down because you live uptown, bitch.”
It’s not the most original take on the situation—Public Enemy has been making those points for years—but Lif’s energy level at least gives it an air of freshness. Ditto for “The Fries,” which at first sounds like standard anti-consumerist invective but eventually connects the dots between sated human flesh and the military-industrial complex. A parking lot full of Happy Meal customers becomes fodder for bloodthirsty government profiteering while a nation of TV watchers keeps eating. “Go ahead gobble the lies/Here’s the fries,” Lif says. It really never gets beyond what the punks of MDC said more than two decades ago in “Corporate Deathburger.” But the song’s coda—a clash of sharp-edged samples, fleeting piano riffs and bone-machine percussion—leaves a little more room for interpretation. Lif examines his identity and ends the song with, “Did we lie down and pull the covers over our head?/Goddamn it, gobble up the next planet.”
Such galactic culture clashes are a mainstay of indie hip-hop—and of Def Jux rappers in particular. The bigger the metaphor, the better. But the label has been dwelling in the here-and-now much more in recent years, and it’s easy to get a sense that as the Juxies age a bit, business is becoming just as important as bong hits. Of course, no self-respecting indie rapper would chase (or could reasonably expect) Jay-Z-sized money, but a guy like Lif can still write songs about the industry. His mode is sarcasm, but this time around, it’s too soft.
“Murs Iz My Manager,” featuring fellow indie-hop stalwart Murs, tries to offer a clever, self-deprecatory take on the idea that rappin’ ain’t easy, but it’s so half-baked that it suggests otherwise. The song implies that Lif put Kanye West up to saying the line about George Bush and black people, and it gets clumsier from there. “And we got that show in the Caymans, you ain’t packed yet?/What about the verse you supposed to write for Ben Affleck?” says Murs to his worn-out protégé, adding later, “No more cameos/Take your album serious/Turn down Nicky, Paris, and Tara Reid/Dedication to your craft that your fans won’t believe.” With that roll call of babes, this would have been the perfect place to slide in a few verses from “Washitup!” (Sorry.) “Career Finders,” on last year’s album by the Perceptionists—Lif’s side project with rapper Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One—was far funnier, and not just because the group managed to hire Humpty Hump for a cameo: The song went after poseurs from the perspective of a ghetto career-management agency. Gun-clapping wannabe gangsters were told to join the military or the police force.
Lif also revisits another theme from that album—the rapper as loverman—and throws in a song about fatherhood as well. Both are nearly throwaways. “Long Distance” has sex rhymes that seem more technical than joyous (“That’s when I bite the back of your neck and then your arms, too/Grindin’/And soon enough, I feel your pussy tighten”), but it’s saved by El-P’s stomping, midtempo beat, which would be worthy of “Paul’s Boutique.” Likewise, “For You”—a predictable open letter to his kid (“Please allow me private moments as I gather this poem”)—is made palatable by an easygoing mix of soulful percussion and friendly synth notes. It’s a prime example of how El-P has grown from being a producer with one goal—sonic unease—into a master of subtle, can’t-quite-tell-where-he-got-it hooks.
And it’s the sonics that make Mo’ Mega seem potentially monumental from the get-go: The guitar-based blasts, minor-key strings, “Eminence Front”–style keyboards, sleigh bells, and disembodied background “oohs” of album-opener “Collapse” beg to be dissected—and the rubbery bass, triangle taps, and organ stabs of “Ultra-Mega” offer the perfect counterpoint. But Lif makes the mistake of performing both songs in martyr mode, taking on a vocal tone that sounds part tired and part disgusted. “I noticed that you mentioned your opinion/Oh, now they got a couple things to say, too/What should I do?/Listen, I leak crimson, all over the floor, from my wrist there/Now you got Lif,” he raps sarcastically at the beginning of “Collapse.” The song is ultimately about pressure, Billy Joel–style.
The symbolic suicide has the potential to be a powerful conceit, but Lif spins it into something middling: a collection of songs about vultures, ingrates, sex targets, and familial longing. And the chatter about stinky booty? It’s tragically cynical, on so many levels. CP