Earlier this year I heard Mr. Lif’s 2009 LP I Heard It Today—which was released three months into the Obama administration—for the first time. While the rapper was obviously always extremely critical of Bush, this album proved unique among its contemporaries in its skepticism toward the new Democratic administration’s plans for the country in the midst of a now-ancient-history financial crisis, and is probably the only piece of media from that period I can think of that doesn’t feel blindly optimistic. Additionally, while we were half a decade past Katrina and still several years shy of Ferguson and its successive episodes of police violence in 2009, there’s a firm focus on a political neglect for Black lives on that LP, giving it that (unfortunately) perpetual more-relevant-than-ever feel that, for some reason, is reserved in our cultural canon for Public Enemy, Do the Right Thing, and not much else.
It’s no surprise, then, that with plenty going on in 2020, Lif has returned with the latest in a series of recent collaborative records (following LPs with Brass Menazerie, L’Orange, and his Perceptionist cohort Akrobatik) alongside producer Stu Banagas for the pair’s debut as Vangarde. While the emcee does skewer our country’s continued support of the police in spite of, um, everything, the intro explicitly sets this project up as a product of the post-pandemic era. For every “Shelter in Place” and “The New Normal,” though, the pair unleash an “8 Minutes 46 Seconds,” providing yet another cultural history lesson for listeners discovering the record eleven years down the road.
While the themes of the album are pretty clear, we asked the duo to give us a little backstory on each of the LP’s tracks—from the project’s bittersweet origins to the influence of our dystopian-sci-fi nation. Stream the record below, and read on for Lif and Stu’s commentary.
Mr. Lif: This is actually one of the last tracks we recorded for the album. Stu and I felt like we needed an intro to set the stage. Insight is typically my go-to guy for narration on albums. I wrote a short piece to sum up my observations and experiences at that point—which was a few months into the pandemic—and Insight narrated the piece exactly how I envisioned.
Stu Bangas: This was just dope for me to get a chance to work with Insight—he’s a Mass Legend to me, and I like how he represented on this one. Both of their swords are sharp here.
2. “Shelter in Place” (feat. Blacastan)
Mr. Lif: The beat Stu made for this one is an all-out massacre. That’s why it became the first song on the album. It sets the tone for the album, and Tone Spliff’s cuts are dangerous and classic. This one is all about uncorking the verbal Molotov and hurling it repeatedly with reckless abandon
Stu Bangas: Yeah, this sounds like something I can put on repeat at the gym and lift weights too—and both Lif and Blac caught bodies.
Mr. Lif: This is the first song I wrote for the album. Stu’s instrumental is so grimy, it damn near reminds me of an old Wu-Tang beat from RZA. I had to come through vicious and drop knowledge on this one. Poetic license to paint a picture. Basquiat.
Stu Bangas: I loved the title of this track and Lif sits in the pocket crazy on those drums. Very happy with the end result on this one.
4. “8 Minutes 46 Seconds” (feat. Puma Ptah, Reef The Lost Cauze, Bluprint & Murs)
Mr. Lif: George Floyd was tortured to death in broad daylight by a small group of treasonous men who were supposed to be protecting American citizens. Most heinous thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I honestly hope every single cop involved does serious jail time. There’s no room in our society for racist, homicidal maniacs to be empowered to commit murder and be protected by a system that is spiritually ill. I called my whole fucking squad for this one. Each emcee spoke from the heart on their own experiences. We bodied this one in the name of justice and equality.
Stu Bangas: This is a song which gave us all an opportunity to express our disgust for what had happened to Floyd. I think it came out well done, and articulated concisely how each emcee felt, as the instrumental did for myself.
5. “Old World Brokenness” (Interlude Beat)
6. “Wave The Flag” (feat. Eternia & Insight)
Mr. Lif: This song is basically the point in which previous science fiction prognostications of doom are acknowledged as the realities of modern day life. Eternia swoops in with her Sarah Connor–esque interpretation of modern day dystopia.
Stu Bangas: Both Lif and Eternia are painting some vivid pictures on here as far as I am concerned!
7. “Sonar” (feat. Akrobatik)
Mr. Lif: This one is for all the people who previously didn’t see the walls boxing us in. We now see that the walls are our own home. The doors to the jail cell being our front and back doors. This is, of course, courtesy of world governments, and sponsored by coronavirus.
8. “New World Adjustments” (Interlude Beat)
9. “Now Is Only Now”
Mr. Lif: This one is clearly personal. On February 29, my wife and son flew to Canada and I was supposed to fly on March 15 to reunite with them. The news of coronavirus and the infections spread so quickly that by March 8, I could tell that borders would soon be closed. As a result of border closures, I was separated from my wife and son for four months. In that span of time, I missed my only child’s first birthday. It was in this four month span—during which I was overseeing the health of my mother—that Stu Bangas and I made the decision to officially become Vangarde and create our self titled debut album.
10. “The New Normal”
Mr. Lif: This song is our mission statement. I love all of Stu’s beats but this one, to me, particularly embodies something that strikes to what’s at the core of hip-hop music and culture. The title speaks to the new realities of the world we live in. We pay homage here to Gang Starr (the best emcee/producer combo of all time), and remind people that as much as the world is changing, they can rely on me and Stu delivering hard beats and rhymes as the new normal.
Stu Bangas: This joint came out really dope. I used a Motif Alumni sample and a classic drum break, and Lif just went to town on it, in the way only he can. Really happy with the end result.
11. “No Hitter”
Mr. Lif: Just letting my mind roam on this one. Stu made the perfect beat to flow on…so I flowed. No chorus. Just raw beat and lyrics.
Stu Bangas: Just like Lif said, no chorus, which isn’t always needed…just caught a body on this one.