Perhaps a state of complete control emerges when words lose their meaning, when articulation is its own unkept promise. So goes the dilemma of the modern political musician, battling not only the strong arm of the government but also the debasements of language that foster its control. The more serious problem with political — or, rather, politicized — music is that its rhetoric of action lacks even a bureaucracy to hide behind: It is dead on arrival, by definition chatter filling an endless trough of chatter. And though the courage to inspire — and even to voice one’s concerns — is its own sort of victory, it is hard to approach an album like Mr. Lif’s I Heard It Today without a bit of cynicism.
There was a time, of course, when socially conscious music seemed relevant. By my estimation, at least, this time has passed. The Buffalo Springfield come to mind, especially “For What It’s Worth,” which captures even in a little riff the profound reach of pop culture as well as — notice the song’s title — its limited capacity for self-critique. Or, more relevant to this discussion, the still resonant vitriol of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; it is no wonder that this album has been revived and revisited in recent years. It rings true and too, to an extent, is an arbiter of truth.
For one reason or another the enduring legacy of works such as these renders I Heard It Today pastiche. It is the same reason political speeches now almost invariably echo John F. Kennedy or some similarly iconic figure and come off all the less moving for it. I think that somewhere along the line we, this nation of millions, have conflated originality with truth. (Though Mr. Lif has never lied to us, mangled the health care system, or supported a military dictatorship, so there is probably something else at play, too.)
I Heard It Today has its surprises, perhaps the greatest being that it is actually good. I like the beats. I like the rhymes. I like the life. It is totally listenable and, to relay a personal anecdote, sounded highly appropriate at a recent social gathering. Beneath the flow is a manifestly concerned voice earning its often tired messages with clever wordplay and allusions. As each track was produced in response to a specific event in the fall of 2008, the album has a sort of propulsive immediacy — the heavy-handed statements have that particular flair that comes from hearing about something outrageous and responding to it before the excitement fades.
Yet at times Mr. Lif sounds not so much confident as haughty, and it works to his disadvantage. I am all about the attempts to express oneself in a form that has already been beaten to death, but a nudge or hint of bashfulness wouldn’t hurt the sympathy vote. Not that I expect Lif to cower like a parodic indie dude, I just wish he didn’t sound so pleased with himself. Returning to pontificatory mode: To be truly critical of politics is to direct criticism first and foremost at the self — to think locally in terms of the global. Mr. Lif says, “I’m over-skilled and understated/ Often underrated/ Overlooked ‘cause the market’s oversaturated.” Let’s hope he’s right.