Uplift or reduced subsidence prior to continental breakup is a key component of the rift-drift transition. This uplift causes lateral variations in the lithospheric potential energy, which can increase intraplate deviatoric tension, thereby facilitating continental rupture. There is a growing body of evidence that pre-breakup uplift is a global phenomenon characteristic of magmatic and magma-poor rifted margins. Evidence is provided by the subaerial extrusion of lava interpreted from drill logs, stratigraphic records, the presence of breakup unconformities, and the spatial extent of uplift associated with Afar (the Ethiopian-Somali plateau), which may be at the stage of rupture. Previously discussed mechanisms contributing to this uplift include phase transitions, dynamic uplift from mantle plumes, and magmatic underplated bodies. We show in this study that dynamic uplift resulting from passive upwelling asthenosphere below the rift is limited (∼200 m). Isostatic arguments suggest that removal of mantle lithosphere is a necessary and effective mechanism for uplift coincident with rupture. The combination of mantle phase transitions and a very thin mantle lid produces an excess potential energy state (as evidenced by a positive geoid anomaly) and leads to tensional forces favorable for rupture. These results underpin our proposed model for continental breakup where removal of mantle lithosphere by either detachment or formation of gravitational instabilities is a characteristic process. Observations of depth-dependent thinning and geochemical data support this model.