When revered Boston MCs Mr. Lif and Akrobatik first united to put out “Black Dialogue,” their debut record as the Perceptionists, Barack Obama was still an Illinois senator and the iPhone was just a vision in Steve Jobs’s grand plan. A lot has changed since 2005. What hasn’t changed is the Perceptionists’ effortless chemistry and passionate commitment to creating thoughtful, real-deal hip-hop — both of which are on display throughout their long-anticipated follow-up, “Resolution,” out Friday.
The new album is a remarkably tight 11-song set balancing each rapper’s cerebral, socially minded verses with much more personal insights. Working with an array of producers (DJ Fakts One left the group shortly after “Black Dialogue”) providing insistent and melodic beats, the MCs make a welcome return with music as nuanced as it is hard-hitting.
“There never was a point when we thought we never were going to make another album again,” says Akrobatik in a wide-ranging joint interview with Lif. “If you look at the timeline since the last album came out, we’ve pretty much always worked together and worked on each other’s projects — there’s maybe one in which we’re not both on. We’ve always been a crew.
“Putting out a record as the Perceptionists is something we wanted to give the right treatment and do under all the right circumstances at the right time with the right team and label. You couple that with all that we’ve been through over the past couple of years personally. That put an urgency on it. We thought, ‘Let’s do it while we can because tomorrow is not promised.’ ”
The longtime friends, who punctuate and amplify each other’s comments with the same ease and fierce intelligence of their lyrical give and take, have endured a lot of personal trauma since their debut. Akrobatik has fully recovered from an aorta rupture and open-heart surgery while Lif survived a life-threatening tour bus crash in 2006. The experiences clearly color their perspectives on some of the new album’s best songs.
“Grab Hold,” and “Different Light” are introspective, conflicted, and filled with hard-earned wisdom. On “Resolution” Akrobatik raps, “Just in case a brother doesn’t live a minute more/The rush I get every time y’all give a roar/ Lets me know I’m living more/whether rich or poor.” These complex tracks bring the record closure after it shifts from a sociopolitical focus to personal reconciliation.
“I’m pretty much trying to live the cliché of living every day to the fullest. There are usually silly things I beat myself up over, and I’m trying to make a conscious effort to let those go,” Lif says quietly, understandably a bit hesitant to rehash his near-death experience. “I’m very cognizant of the fact tomorrow is not granted.”
Akrobatik is equally pensive when discussing his recovery. “A big part of what I’ve been doing is trying to seize the moment. When I got knocked off track for a while, it was always about trying to focus on my own physical well-being and putting that on the front burner — getting myself back to 100 percent and even better. You realize every day counts.”
While the crisply produced set mixed by Lif has playful, head-nodding moments (“Let’s Battle,” “Dirty Drumz”) and a few spikey guest spots (including one from Boston MC Dutch ReBelle), its core lies in the duo’s penetrating exploration of America’s cultural and political landscape.
They are uncompromising while examining corporate hypocrisy, government duplicity, the murder of young African-American males, technology run amok, and a world “spinning out of control.”
The rappers, who are already beginning their next album, made careful decisions about how to approach these rapidly changing, tumultuous times.
“We didn’t want to say the name of the current president and we didn’t want to be construed as largely negative because the news cycle has already presented itself — it’s self-evident,” Lif says.
“If we wanted to effect positive change we needed to be ourselves — our best selves. We didn’t want to stain our record by talking about certain things. We wanted to talk about the times so it’s clear we are aware what’s going on, but also do it in a timeless way.”
He is philosophical about the tsunami of tragic events that seems to come with every news update these days. “I know there has been a lot of crazy stuff going on my whole life, and I don’t know if it’s just me moving on in my years, but my overall assessment is that the systems in place are vastly unhealthy on such profound levels that we’re not even cognizant of the things you hear about going on in the world,” Lif says.
“There are so many heinous acts resulting in death or people having experiences that truly scar them. For example, look back when Columbine happened. Kids walking into school and killing others — that stopped the world for me. It was so drastic and horrifying. I was like we might not see this happen again in our lifetime, and now it happens every week. I can’t put my finger on where the illness is.”
With such a resonant, richly realized new album, the 39-year-old Lif and 42-year-old Akrobatik — both with successful solo careers — realize they are out of step with the mainstream rap world dominated by young trap artists stacking syllables about strippers.
Lif does point to the success of Kendrick Lamar as a hopeful sign that the Perceptionists’ music will get the fair hearing it deserves. Akrobatik, who teaches a course in the history of hip-hop at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is pragmatic about how the duo’s music might be perceived by fans of acts like Lil Yachty or
“Something like our music or the history of hip-hop won’t necessarily be so important to someone who is 21 in 2017. They might be. Maybe their mom and dads showed them records because that’s how our generation found our music — by listening to our parents’ music,” he says.
“The way people listen to music [now] is so different. It’s a more individual environment with headphones on. That’s why the music is so crass and vulgar, because it’s not received communally with people of all ages together listening. When you take away that community experience and what makes hip-hop hip-hop, things change.”
He pauses to consider his words and continues. “I want to make music that anyone can play anywhere at any time. That might prevent it from being the most popular thing among the kids, but if they do discover it, they will probably say, ‘Hey, listen to this, it’s good.’ ”Ken Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.