“I couldn’t pay health care,” he said. “That’s one of the most bold smacks in the face in this country. It’s a way to say, ‘Look, we just don’t even care about you.’” Fast forward 13 years to the ongoing fight in Washington over universal health care, and the rapper’s remarks are chillingly prescient. Which is not to suggest that Lif possesses powers of clairvoyance — simply that the rest of the country has been determinedly blind to a reality to which he has long been awake.
Mr. Lif made his name as a political rapper. The emcee, who grew up in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, broke out in 2002 with the concept album “I Phantom,” a meditation on capitalism’s soul-crushing mechanisms, where joy and self-fulfillment are sublimated to the twin drives to produce and consume. Lif’s 2006 album “Mo’ Mega” veered into more personal territory, but his 2009 follow-up “I Heard It Today” returned to politics with a visceral response to the presidential election. An innate skeptic, Lif was as wary of Obama’s hopeful rhetoric as he had been of the Bush administration’s hawkish policies.
Lif’s new album, “Don’t Look Down,” is his most inward-looking to date. (He celebrates the album’s release with a show on May 5 at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge.) But just as it would be an oversimplification to pigeonhole Lif as a political rapper, it would be a mistake to read “Don’t Look Down” as a product of self-involvement. The album is more like a coping mechanism for the politically woke, a boom bap poem about the search for inner peace in a messed-up world. The first two tracks detail a tense face-off between the album’s protagonist and his girlfriend’s stalker, and the songs that follow seek a sense of balance in the wake of that trauma. The initial feeling of foreboding, though, never lurks far off.
For the past five years, Mr. Lif has been touring with the DJ collective Thievery Corporation. “Don’t Look Down” is his first solo effort in seven years. In a recent interview, the rapper talked about his new album, the poetic power of hip-hop and the transformative experience of cutting off all his hair. The conversation has been excerpted and edited for clarity.
Amelia Mason: In the press materials for this album, it alludes to trying to overcome hardship, and that seems to be the theme of this album. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What was the inspiration for this cycle of songs?
Mr. Lif: When the housing collapse happened, that was a significant piece of it because, prior to the housing collapse happening, there was also the collapse of the record industry. Where it was 100 percent certified that people weren't buying CDs and weren’t really buying vinyl at the time. So I just basically felt like a craftsman whose skills weren't needed anymore, you know? … I finished touring, in maybe late 2009, early 2010, supporting the "I Heard It Today" album, and when I got back from tour I cut off my locs, which I had had for like 15 years. So it was a major identity switch.
Why did you cut off your hair?
It shifted gradually from my locs giving me power to them just causing me pain. Literally—I started to get bad headaches. The only way I could be comfortable was if I had them pulled back out of my face, because they were just swinging and bashing me in the face all the time. I was going through some tough times on a personal level as well. Just with a relationship I was having. A relationship was closing out. I was actually quite at peace with it closing out, because I didn't have the energy for it, but I learned some hard lessons in that circumstance as well. And I just felt like—I don't know, when I had my locs pulled back, I could see a different person underneath there. Because I basically had an Afro underneath my locs, because I had so much hair. And I was just like, “Yeah, I want to see that person again.”
It's interesting to have those first two tracks telling this very concrete story. How did you come up with that? Why did you decide to tell this story?
It is based on a reality that I was living for a while, where I was dating a woman in DC who had a stalker. And there was definitely some tension that stemmed from that situation. Luckily, it didn't come to everything that happened in the song. Thankfully, very thankfully. But yeah, I mean probably that song was born out of certain contemplation I had during that era, where it was just tense. It was tense to go to sleep at night. And, yeah, I would be awake, listening. Just making sure everything was cool. I am a night owl by nature, but I was definitely in protect mode at that point.
Looking at your past work, this strikes me as one of the less overtly political albums. Is that because you have had to look inward to find peace, because it was so hard be politically engaged? It's pretty depressing, I think sometimes.
Yeah, it is. You pretty much nailed it. I mean, that "I Heard It Today" album was exhausting. It really was. It was weird—it was triumphant and exhausting and kind of broke me in certain ways at the same time. … If you look back to some of my earlier records, like "Emergency Rations" or "I Phantom," where I'm maybe more overtly touching on world events, there comes a point where you realize, wow, you know, you look at 9/11 and you look at the housing crises, and you're like, yeah, those were two checkmate chess moves that just changed the entire dynamic in the country. They just kind of flipped the game on its head. 9/11 was used to dissolve our privacy, and obviously the housing crisis was a major play to just put more money in the pockets of those who were already wealthy. Of course we can't talk about the housing crisis without including the bailout. And then I think you see now, in 2015, 2016, you're just seeing this really alarmingly rapid change in so many cities. Like Seattle, Seattle's blowing up. Everywhere you look there's just cranes and new buildings going up. And a lot of tech people make a lot of money and are able to pay exorbitant amounts for places. And then obviously San Fran, the entire dynamic of that city is changing as well. And people are being marginalized. Neighborhoods are losing a big part of their soul because people that were there that helped create the place, that have 10, 15, 20, 25 years of history being in a region, now are just looking at their rent like, “Damn, I gotta move.”
These were issues I feel like you were already rapping about before the housing bubble burst. Especially on "I Phantom," that stuff is explored overtly. Looking at it now, is everything the same, or do you feel like things are changing in America?
I feel like things are worse. And that's one of the more crushing blows of it, is that things are worse. … This is definitely a runaway train. We are passengers on a runaway train. I appreciate Bernie Sanders and the things that he's talking about wanting to change, I just ultimately think that we're in a system where, yeah, you can get people in there and move all the pieces around as much as you want, but it's all being done under the umbrella of this construct that really isn't designed to bring the best out in people in terms of morality. There are a lot of rewards for d--king people over. The reward is that you get more money if you're not fair to people. It just kind of feels like—again, you ask me that question, was it intentional that "Don't Look Down" wasn't as political. It's a reflection that I had to step away and save my soul. And just be like, OK, let me look through a different lens for a little while here.
And what is that lens?
I think it's the lens of poetry. It really is. … I think a lot of rhymes that you hear just listening to commercial radio — obviously there's a lot of consumerist, materialist things being said. A lot of very chauvinistic things being said. But I don't know that there's an abundance where you feel like, wow, if you just held up that sheet of paper that that rhyme was written on, you'd think it was a beautiful piece of poetry. I think Kendrick Lamar on "To Pimp A Butterfly," Kendrick has some really beautiful poetry on that project. And I think that's a quality that shouldn’t be forgotten in hip-hop.
And also, I just love the freedoms that poetic license allows me. I can be weird if I want. I can say some lines and hopefully they will mean something to the listener, but maybe they'll mean something different from what I meant when I wrote them. And that's OK. That's OK. It's a nice coping mechanism to be like, OK: I'm walking around these streets and seeing a lot of urban decay and it feels like I'm walking through the midst of chaos. … But if I can look at it through a poetic lens, it allows me to extract some beauty from my bad experiences. And I think that's a saving grace for me. I can transform blight to beauty through a poetic lens.