Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

At the end of his debut album, I Phantom, Mr. Lif takes a moment to contemplate something that’s become obligatory hiphop subject matter: his own death. For most rappers, death is a rather predictable end to their urban-cowboy tales: “I was high when they hit me,” smirked a prescient Biggie on his last album. “Took a few cats with me/Shit, I need the company.”

But Lif’s trip into the void isn’t brought to us via snappy one-liners or a shoot-out in the streets. Instead, the Boston-based MC meets the Man after perishing in a nuclear war. Appropriately titled “Post Mortem,” the track finds a dying Lif eulogizing humanity: “My horizon was accessorizing, need bred more need/Best believe it’s the equation of greed/I need a new car and thus new brakes, another tuneup with loot/Whatever’s put together shall be unscrewed.”

The “equation of greed” that ultimately defeats Lif and all life on Earth is the most cogent theme to emerge from I Phantom, and it largely defines the success of the CD. When Lif drifts away from this thread—say, to pontificate on the decline and fall of hiphop—the album drifts with him. But when focused on the nexus of consumerism and personal responsibility, as he is for much of the disc, Lif produces some amazingly smart and self-critical music.

A lot of MCs are big on talking introspection—at least in their record titles. But even the most exceptional rapper’s album usually scans more like a comic book than a memoir. Take Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides: It’s a very good album, but it spends most of its time dealing with generalist themes, not revealing anything insightful about its creator and his blackness. I Phantom, by contrast, is a mold-breaker, an intimate album that gives the listener an accurate picture of the musician who made it.

On “New Man’s Theme,” Lif offers some real-life biography: “I used to revel in the ways that were before me/Go to school, get a job; come on, you know, the usual story…/What I mean, I was told that in life there’s a goal/And it’s gold, those without it die unhappy and cold.” But Lif, after being accepted to Colgate University on an athletic scholarship, discovers that this road, though well-traveled, does not have his name on it. “Here’s my list of things I wanted to know:/Myself. End of list. Get the gist?” he raps. “Professors are pissed/Tally up the classes I missed.” He returns from college without a degree but with a love of hiphop. Unfortunately, his new passion doesn’t shield him from his parents’ disappointed gaze—or, for that matter, from the insecurities that arise from traveling without a road map.

Phantom comes to very few conclusions in its attempt to weigh traditionalism against nonconformity, the 40-hour work week against art. Though Lif clearly prefers the latter in each case, the album is filled with cuts in which he questions his judgment—usually to grim effect. “Live From the Plantation,” a track goosed along by a head-nodding beat and some surprisingly upbeat horns, finds Lif accepting a minimum-wage job in the hope of climbing to something grander. The experiment ends with him murdering his employer: “Dead boss, somebody call Red Cross/I guess he got caught up in my mental holocaust.” On “Success,” Lif actually manages to climb the ladder, garnering all the attendant accessories—a wife, a kid, and a nice house. But this fairy tale comes crashing down when the narrator’s slavish dedication to work destroys his family.

The end result of this conflict is weighed in Phantom’s final three songs, which assert that the marriage of capitalist striving and the Puritan work ethic has but one logical conclusion: the destruction of humanity. In another medium, such an end might be predictable, but few hiphoppers have dealt with such weighty issues. “Iron Helix” is a dialogue that finds Lif playing Western imperialist, tempting fellow Beantown rapper Insight away from a life connected to the Earth to one governed by rationalism, psychoanalysis, and technology. “I mastered math, infused bionics with biology/Police carry shotguns inside a robotic knee…/I think that I might/Drop a bomb on Nagasaki/Just because it’s in sight,” a transformed Insight rhymes. “You’ve arrived,” Lif replies, then the two together proclaim, “All opposition must die.”

On “Earthcrusher,” Lif imagines such thinking leading to a global nuclear holocaust, predictably pinning the blame squarely on the American government, which “ruled the world under Masonry.” But on “Post Mortem,” he queries his own contribution to the great demise: “Would I trade it all, cruising down the highway on a bright summer day?/Gazing out a plane to see the Earth from miles away?/Watching the Patriots win the Super Bowl, grabbing that fumble from Ricky Proehl?…#/I don’t know. All I know is, I feel guilt for every single thing I’ve ever bought and sold.”

It’s a remarkable moment in the history of hiphop, if only for the ground it attempts to cover. Lyrically, I Phantom is almost without peer. Musically, however, it has some unfortunate deficiencies. In some places, the production works (“Earthcrusher”‘s spooky scales and faux newscasts, “Glimpse at the Struggle”‘s syncopated rhythms and swirling samples); in others it becomes ugly and monotonous (“Status”‘s cheap-sounding percussion and tiresome bass line, “Friends and Neighbors”‘s thin strings and constant vinyl crackle). Like all underground hiphop releases, Phantom lacks that extra polish that a major studio can provide—a fact Lif and his co-producers (including labelmate El-P) sometimes seem to emphasize more than necessary, turning rough-edged charm into muddiness.

Sonic shortcomings aside, Phantom contains some remarkably effective mediations on the Machine from a cog that doesn’t fit. Unlike the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries, Lif fully grasps the potential of an MC to explain himself—and thus, to explain the world. CP