Thursday, November 5, 2009

Brother Ali - Us | Album Review

Brother Ali
Release Date: September 22nd, 2009

Few emcees can claim an organic following comparable to Brother Ali’s fanbase because few emcees actually deserve it. Receiving mostly A’s from the general consensus of rap critics, the only criticisms I’ve ever heard about Brother Ali are that he’s too preachy and he’s overly-adored by the indie-rap crowd. The latter point might be true, but how is that a negative? Bottom line, I don’t feel like his praise is undeserved. The former critique has a bit more merit. After all, Us, Ali’s latest release, was originally set to be titled The Street Preacher. Preachiness can be off-putting if it’s delivered with gaucheness and transparent opportunism; you know, like the token “conscious” track that usually appears near the end of many commercial rap records. Lacking this trait of inauthentic sincerity, Ali’s music has thoroughly been soulful and full of heart.

Like a Lupe Fiasco or a Mos Def, one of Brother Ali’s great skills is the ability to walk the thin line between partying for the right to fight and fighting for the right to party. As such, Ali can seamlessly interweave his moralistic homilies alongside his buoyant, blue collar anthems. At this point, I’m convinced that it can’t simply be a coincidence that many of today’s well-known observant Muslim rappers are amongst the elite in the game – but that’s a topic for another day.

Us finds Brother Ali in a celebratory mode like never before. On “Fresh Air”, Ali quips about his emergence to indie stardom, reflecting and rejoicing in jest: “Not two years ago I was homeless/ I mean crashing on the couch of my homies/ Now I’m crashing in the couch with Conan/ Signed a mortgage and bought my own shit/”. Once again backed by producer extraordinaire Ant of Atmosphere fame, Ali also invited an in-house band to provide an appropriately lush backdrop for his heartfelt raps. Shedding a bit of the grit from his breakout record The Undisputed Truth, Ali’s latest project counters with a slew of surprises and a wider stylistic scope. Building off of the blues-centric backdrops of his previous LP, Brother Ali tests his skills atop new soundscapes. On “The Preacher”, Ali combusts with a high octane flow over a frenetic ska rock beat to set the tone for the album. Whiplash suddenly kicks in as he follows up with the smooth and anti-climactically jazzy rhythms of “Crown Jewels”. Just like that, Ali snaps his fingers and takes you to a new plateau of his conscious’ focus. While The Undisputed Truth boasted consistency in abundance, the sitar strings of Nate Collis and Steve Roehm’s vibraphone – just to name a few of the album’s backing musicians and their instruments – allude to the trademark of Us: fluidity and range.

Brother Ali’s lyricism and narratives show great depth as well; on “House Keys” for instance, Ant’s haunting vocal loops perfectly suit Ali’s dream sequence-like narratives which scream of Hitchcock-esque Rear Window influence. Ali makes light of the scenario with a humorous conclusion that evokes the notoriety of “Niggas Bleed” by Biggie. By and large, lapses are few and far between on Us – but they’re there. For example, the Freeway and Joell Ortiz-assisted “Best at It” is great as a standalone track; nonetheless it damages the feel of the album’s one-man-show theme and as such feels unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Truthfully though, it’s not enough to knock the overall value of the album which rarely strays from being infectious and memorable. Us is yet another entry into Brother Ali’s steadily growing, quality-driven discography: must-hear music for soulful hip hop purists.