I first heard Brother Ali last year on “The Truth” off of Jake One’s “White Van Music.” I had heard of him, but only knew that he was a white albino Muslim. Then I heard him rap and I was sold. “Hungry pacing in a bus station with my nuts hangin/But I never sold base, motherfuck Reagan/ Shit just wasn’t in my upbringin!” he rapped, sounding like a combination preacher and boxer, full of righteous fury and ready to give you a verbal beatdown. From that verse, I knew I had to get educated about Brother Ali.
“Us” is his fourth full-length, coming two years after “The Undisputed Truth,” and seven months after the EP “The Truth Is Here.” The album starts off with the intro “Brothers and Sisters” featuring Chuck D. and Stokley Williams, who proclaim that Brother Ali is “a soldier in the war for love.” That may sound cheesy, but he means it, and he makes it work. In the liner notes he explains that the working title of the album was “Street Preacher,” because a fan told him that he didn’t just perform music to entertain, but also to spread the Gospel of “love yourself and stay connected to the world.”
And preach he does. Brother Ali uses the mic as a pulpit to preach against the ills of the world, from slavery (“The Travelers”) to inner pain (“Babygirl”). One of the most touching songs is “Tight Rope,” about various people trying to walk the line between two worlds. The first verse is about a Somalian Muslim in Minnesota trying to fit in to Western culture while still staying true to her faith and culture. The second verse is about a child from a broken home, and the third verse is about a gay kid in a fundamentalist household. While other rappers are busy calling each other faggot and saying “no homo,” Brother Ali raps:
“Daddy says people go to hell for being what he is
And he certainly believes him
Cause there ain’t no flame that can blaze enough
To trump being hated for the way you love
And cry yourself to sleep and hate waking up
It’s a cold ass world, y’all
Shame on us”
Here’s a deeply religious man performing in a very homophobic genre taking a strong stance against homophobia. That is a true test of bravery and conviction. He also makes it about “us” not “them,” making it clear that all of us are complicit in allowing injustice to continue. “Us” is not just the title of the album, it’s the recurring theme. This album is about the good and the bad of the human experience, and Ali continually makes the point that we are all part of the same family. “The world’s getting too small to stand in one place,” he raps on album closer “Us.” “It’s like we’re roommates sharing the same space.” This message of unity and togetherness is welcome in a scene and country and world that seems so divided at times.
Ali’s message raps are effective for one basic reason: he is a rapper first, and preacher second. He started out trying to be the baddest MC there is before deciding to use his mic skills to address serious issues. A lot of message-based rappers are focused on the message first and the art form second, which makes for mediocre music. Ali would be an incredible rapper if he was rapping about bullshit; the fact that he addresses such righteous themes only makes his music that much more powerful.
It’s not all message raps on “Us,” though. Ali also lets loose and has fun. “Fresh Air,” the first single, celebrates his recent marriage, making domesticity sound like more fun than a limo full of strippers. “I’m the luckiest sumbitch that ever lived,” he jubilantly raps. “I spend my life doing shit I love.” Freeway and Joell Ortiz join him on “Best@it” to take out sucker MCs with so much fury you almost feel bad for the poor rappers they set their targets on. These tracks let the listener know that Ali has a lighter side, which makes him seem that much more human, and in turn makes his messages that much more effective. He’s not holier than thou; he’s one of us, full of foibles and flaws, and willing to make fun of himself and other rappers.
There’s another “us” on this album, and that’s Brother Ali and producer Ant, better known as half of Atmosphere. Every track on the album is a collaboration between the two. Ant is refining the more musical sound of Atmosphere’s “When Life Gives You Lemons…” There are seven musicians listed in the credits, and it sounds like a lot of the music here is from live instruments rather than samples. That gives the album an incredible energy. Songs like “The Preacher” and “Fresh Air” practically jump out of your stereo, and their funky sound reminded me of Lyrics Born. The tracks that aren’t constructed entirely out of live instruments still use a guitar lick or piano as a basis for the beats, which adds a nice feel to the entire disc. The downside of this is that, as with “Lemons,” there are a few too many downtempo tracks, which cause the second half of the album to drag a bit. Still, I was a big fan of “Lemons,” and “Us” is a continuation of the mature sound and mature themes of Atmosphere’s album.
“Us” is uplifting, thought-provoking, funny, heartbreaking, and bootyshaking. It’s one of the few hip hop albums you’ll own that gives shout outs to mother-in-laws and home ownership. Ali may be preaching, but he’s not dogmatic or judgmental. “Us” is further proof of Ali’s amazing skills on the mic, and proof that hip hop can be mature without being boring.