Sometimes, I review an album just to take the piss out of it – like Chris Cornell’s Scream or like I intend to do with the forthcoming Creed reunion record. It’s fun and easy and allows me to vent a lot of frustration in a short amount of time (usually while drinking quality brews). A friend recently asked me why I don’t do similar take-downs of, say, 50 Cent albums. I pointed out to him that I usually play the fish-in-a-barrel game with rock albums because a lot of people seem to understand that there is a wide variety of rock music (I’m including indie here as well because, generally, “indie” just means “rock music that the radio is too dumb to play” – and it doesn’t always even mean that) that is good and that I’m just poking fun at its most egregious offenders. I don’t do that with hip-hop artists because I’ve met too many people who immediately dismiss that genre as completely worthless, full of misogyny and violence. So when it comes to hip-hop, I like to focus my energy on showing people the really awesome performers who are out there waiting to blow your mind.
So let’s talk about Brother Ali, shall we? Based on his voice, some have compared him to Pharaohe Monch. I can kinda see the comparison, in that both artists are aggressively awesome, but I think Ali sounds more like Lyrics Born back when he was still doing rap (New Rule for Hip-Hop: if you’re an awesome MC, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a good soul/pop record), if he sounds like anyone. The more I listen to Us, his recent masterpiece, the more I hear Brother Ali’s distinctive voice and the happier I am about it.
For those of you who value such ephemeral concepts as “cred,” Us starts with a sermon by a true hip-hop luminary: Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Of course, Chuck D’s endorsement is meaningless if Brother Ali doesn’t earn it, but he does so almost immediately, launching into “The Preacher,” with relish, working the beat like I imagine Muhammad Ali worked a punching bag back in the day (you thought I was going to make a Parkinson’s Disease joke there, didn’t you? I’m not quite that tasteless, although I did just remind myself to listen to the new Shaky Hands album).
Part of the reason mainstream hip-hop blows is that there is a long list of sins that rappers commit. One of the biggest is piling song after song about how awesome they are on their albums. We get it – you have healthy self-esteem. Shut the fuck up. (DOOM, formerly known as MF Doom, is one of the very few rappers who self-deprecates as much as he self-aggrandizes. Also, he did song about how Batman and Robin are gay which gives him a free pass on a lot of stuff.) Now Us does have songs about how awesome Brother Ali is but it also has songs about how grateful he is to have the life he has (“Fresh Air”), a song that calls out society for hating on homosexuals (Brother Ali gets it. Fucking Iowa gets it. Why doesn’t California get it?), a song about slavery (“The Travelers”), and songs about how he was hated on by white kids for being an albino (as such, I’d like to point out, Brother Ali is a pretty awesome “post-racial” rapper. He’s so good at it that the press used to think he was black. I’m not gonna rip on ’em for it, though, because I thought he was the first time I heard him too. Take that, assumptions!). Ali is, in fact, brimming with a positivity and gratitude that a lot of rappers like. Rather than pulling a Kanye and saying God chose him to be the voice of his generation, Brother Ali is working ass off and being happy about where it gets him. Kinda reminds me of some certain other Minnesota musicians I can think of right now (*cough* Hold Steady *cough*)…
In fact, I’m just gonna spend a paragraph here handing some props to Minnesota. They have the best radio station on earth, America’s best freshman senator, they’re the birth place of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they’ve given us the Hold Steady, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Bob Dylan and Prince. So thank you, Minnesota. Now can you get rid of that crazy bitch Michele Bachmann?
Rap, historically, is a political beast (I know you wouldn’t know it from listening to 50 Cent or Eminem, but it’s true. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, perhaps the best hip-hop album ever recorded, is largely not about how great money and bitches are) and Brother Ali’s stuff addresses the political through the prism of the personal, spinning tales of deep human complexity while not letting the listener (or himself, for that matter) off the hook fortheir part in a bloody history. In very few lines of “Tight Rope,” he, among many topics, manages a substantive discussion of homosexual equality in just one verse ( featuring the couplet “there ain’t no flame that can blaze enough/ to trump being hated for the way you love”) in a way that has a lot less to do with the left/right stuff of American politics than it does with simple empathy. Ali’s gift is his ability to identify with the people in his songs (some of whom are probably people who listen to his albums and come to his shows) and the best tracks on Us are the ones that tackle the thorniest subject matter.
Given that subject matter, you might get the idea that Us is a total downer, but it’s not. It’s actually exceedingly uplifting, which you can credit both to Ali’s unsurpassed delivery and Ant’s (you might know him as the other half of Atmosphere) stellar production. At 16 tracks, Us avoids being unwieldy and ends up feeling like a party album for people who are more likely to discuss*, rather than run from, the world’s problems while they’re throwing back drinks and hanging out.
* A discussion is this thing rational people can have where they may politely disagree about things but are interested in hearing and respecting the other person’s viewpoint. Scientists think the discussion will actually become extinct sometime near primary season in 2012.