Coming at you with his unmistakable congested voice and some of the most immaculate flows in the indie scene, underground indie rap legend Mr. Lif is back after a seven-year-long hiatus with his latest concept album Don’t Look Down.
Mr. Lif can be found with the likes of other indie heavy hitters El-P and Aesop Rock, pumping out verse after verse driven by complex stories or political statements. This project is no exception. After a seven year break, Lif still boasts the same technical skill, wordplay, and creativity that he was so well known for throughout the 90s and into the late 2000s. So you know the drill, it’s time to stop sleeping, brush up on a staple of the rap scene, and listen to Don’t Look Down by Mr. Lif.
Mr. Lif cannot be praised enough for his storytelling ability: the way he puts a narrative together through his verses and layers the mood right into his production. The first track “Pounds of Pressure” throws us right into the middle of an altercation gone violent, all leading up to a chase through a window. Lif puts the listener at the center of the story by penning the whole song in 2nd person. The real genius comes in the transition between track one into the second; it’s absolutely cinematic. “Pounds of Pressure” ends with “you” jumping out of a window and “The Abyss” picks up with the moment “I landed on the ground.” The momentum across the first two tracks makes it effortless to be attached to Mr. Lif’s protagonist.
The sheer amount of work put into sustaining his stories evidences itself all over his production. The beats are tailored to the word. As soon as Lif says “jump” we get this rushing, pounding transition that’s meant to simulate the adrenaline rush of busting through a window. It’s almost animalistic, emphasized by the howling jungle sounds and gasping that fills the space of the percussion. As soon as Lif says “landed” the gasping subsides and is replaced by a soft and ominous organ. Right away we see this project having an extreme attention to detail.
Movement as a motif for this album carries over into the third track, which kicks off with the line “I’m falling.” The tone of the track of is contemplative, and again the production serves the concept to the last bar. At this point in the project, Mr. Lif’s protagonist is taking a moment to reflect at the “table now, hand’s crossed,” and letting his mind wander around all the “opportunities [they] had passed on.” As the beat pops in and out during Lif’s first verse, we get the feeling that this character’s mind is just aimlessly drifting through all their memories. With Taylormade singing a somber and syrupy hook over an airy and astral synth, we really feel the notes of “demise” that Lif wants to highlight throughout this song.
When it comes to hooks overall, Lif does not disappoint. The hook on “Let Go,” sung by Selina Carrera, gives this track a grainy, noir picture show feel that makes this cut the most intoxicating on the project. Aside from adding texture to the songs, the hooks on this project help give us some breathing room between the lengthy and involved verses. As a result, we’re not left feeling weighed down by the project; there’s rarely a moment where we’re left trying to trudge through a track.
The only let down on this project comes along on the sixth track “Whizdom.” The production on this cut is too cluttered and eclipses Mr. Lif’s flow; it’s too distracting to the ear. Being overwhelmed by the beat takes me right out of the story this album is working to create, and that’s the worst outcome you could have for a concept record. That being said, this track is definitely one to cross check on rap genius because the lyrics themselves are superb.
Once we get into the final stretch on this project, Mr. Lif really starts showing emcee chops. The seventh track “Mission Accomplished” captures one essence of indie rap as Lif trades bars, syllables, and goes down to the letter with Akrobatik on the feature. This is the type of technical flexing that is impressive without coming off as a played out and off-putting brag.
Don’t Look Down is not a comeback record; it is a reminder. All over this project Mr. Lif is reminding everyone that he’s got a sharp ear for production, he knows how to use his features, and can put together a story unlike anyone else. By the end of the project, the concepts at play are fully realized and we’re left feeling satisfied with the journey Lif took us on. As long as he doesn’t wait almost a decade for his next album, I can’t see Mr. Lif letting anyone down with his future projects. That being said, make sure you give Don’t Look Down a spin, immerse yourself in the story, and hope Mr. Lif stays back in the game where he belongs.