Brother Ali - Us

Posted September 23, 2009
Tags: Brother Ali,

Despite its origins as an outsider art form, or perhaps because of it, hip-hop is notoriously...

Us Album Review

Despite its origins as an outsider art form, or perhaps because of it, hip-hop is notoriously hesitant to embrace anyone different. If you’re familiar with Brother Ali you can see where I’m going with this. Brother Ali is an albino, Muslim, former single dad from Minneapolis. Not exactly the recipe for stardom. But Ali has been embraced by a small but growing army of hip-hop fan because while those things may describe him, they don’t define him. Ali refuses to rhyme about anything except what’s inside him and what surrounds him. What’s realer than that? What’s more hip-hop than that?

Given Ali’s extraordinary personal story it’s no wonder that the bulk of his early work detailed his personal struggles. For example, his last album, the critically acclaimed The Undisputed Truth, was an often painful chronicle of his divorce. (By the way, “critically acclaimed” is code for “dope music that scares the crap out of corporate sponsors.”) Ali’s personal work was gripping, but the downside of work about you is just that; it’s only about you. With his new album, the tellingly titled Us, Ali widens the scope of his vision, telling the stories of other people and delving into what connects us all. Us is the next step in the evolution of an artist who has never been afraid to evolve.

Just in case I’m making this review sound too intellectual, let me make an important announcement: Us is also a flat-out dope album. Just take album cut Best @ It, a soulful banger featuring Freeway and Joell Ortiz. More than anything, Best @ It is a lesson in the diversity of rhyme styles. Freeway plows through the track like a bulldozer, Ortiz drops a rewind-worthy lyrically complex verse while Ali’s faster paced rhymes constantly threaten to burst into song. He has a habit of half-singing his raps, accentuating alternate words with a cadence that’s reminiscent of Baptist preachers (more on that later). Similarly hard-laced is the uncompromising Bad MuF**ker Part II, a reminder that while Ali is for love, he’s not afraid to fight: “Yes I’m a bad motherf**ker understand me, grew up eatin broken glass rappin in the alley.” The stereotype says that an artist can’t be simultaneously “conscious” and hard. We can consider Us just another stereotype broken by Brother Ali then.

While Us isn’t afraid to take any prisoners, the bulk of the album is an effort to bridge the gaps between people with music. Us begins with an introduction from the legendary Chuck D before breaking into The Preacher, a live instrument track full of horns and electric guitars that’s easily the album’s most celebratory. The best preachers not only educate but inspire their congregations to band together in a common mission, and in that way The Preacher is an apt parallel for Ali’s work on Us. Case in point is the bluesy Breaking Dawn, a captivating parable about a man who rejects the trappings of success to stay connected to his roots, and The Travelers, a gripping reflection on the horrible legacy of slavery: “Trapped in a history we don’t understand/can’t remember how this blood got on our hands.” Brother Ali unapologetically uses Us as a platform to preach, but he does so in the tradition of the best preachers, wrapping his message in the kind of music and compelling wordplay that ensure it won’t soon be forgotten (kind of like the best rappers do).

I can’t talk about Us without talking about Ant. One half of the group Atmosphere, Ant produced the entire album alongside Ali. An eclectically minded producer with an ear for making subtly powerful tracks out of understated samples, Ant does some remarkable work on the album. From the impossibly cool Crown Jewel, a track that lays a lone horn section over a stuttering guitar line for a lesson in engaged minimalism, to the funk-influenced lead single Fresh Air, Ant draws on an impressively diverse range of sounds to construct Us.

It’s from this sonic backdrop that Brother Ali tells his tales, tales that range from the struggles of paying the rent (House Keys) to an ode to a friend swallowed by street violence (Slippin’ Away). Hip-hop can be many things. It can start a party and it can start a revolution. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies Brother Ali and Us, an album from an outsider that hip-hop would be better off letting in.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted September 23, 2009
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