“And we don’t have bar mitzvahs / We become men the first time our fathers hit us, and we don’t open gifts up”
I saw Brother Ali get booed once. He was opening for a reunited Brand Nubian in Baltimore, which meant he was in front of an audience of old rap heads instead of the emo kids who’d been coming to see him open for Atmosphere for years. The boos came when when he instructed the crowd to put up a fist for black power, and Ali looked shocked when he heard them. It wasn’t like the entire crowd was braying for his removal, but Ali is a fierce and focused live performer, and he’s not used to hearing disapproval from even one person in the crowd: “Somebody booing in this bitch?” He used the tension to his advantage, delivering a set even more severe and sharp than the ones I’ve seen him do in front of more appreciative audiences. But it’s funny: the boos came during the pro-black part of his set, and he was in front of a mostly black crowd. Ali is an albino, and whoever booed probably just assumed that he was a white rapper doing his best to suck up to Brand Nubian’s audience. Ali probably could’ve just told the crowd that he was albino, not white. But that would be taking the easy way out, and so he just redoubled his efforts instead. Sometimes I wish Ali would be willing to exploit his albinism a little more, to take advantage of the most distinctive thing about him the way, say, Matisyahu uses his religious faith as a pop-music gimmick. After all, “Forrest Whitaker,” Ali’s best song, is directly about his albinism. But Ali’s built his persona out of righteous indignation. If he lost sight of that upstanding sense of honor, he’d lose his greatest strength.
Ali has a gruff, wounded preacher’s cadence, but he’d have an authoritative moral weight even if he sounded like B-Real. The Undisputed Truth, Ali’s new album, won’t hit stores for another three months, but it’s a slow week, and I don’t especially feel like waiting to gush, especially since it’s been about a year and a half since I’ve heard an indie-rap album this good. The last indie-rap album I liked this much was Cage’s Hell’s Winter, and that album is pretty much the opposite of The Undisputed Truth in every way. Cage’s album was a mess of drug-addled confusion and fear, like Cage was reveling in all the fucked-up things that had happened to him, like he was happy to get lost in his own darkness. But Ali has no use for confusion. At times, he almost takes on a sort of indie-rap equivalent to Young Jeezy’s self-actualized motivational speaker persona, though Ali would probably punch me in the face for saying so. On The Undisputed Truth, there’s a lot of stuff about conquering your environment and using your trials to make you a stronger person: “This is a piece of my puzzle now / Through the years, I’ve found peace in my struggle now.” Ali thinks of himself as a battle-rapper, and he delivers his punchlines like he can’t believe that wack rappers have the temerity to even exist. But Ali’s not really a punchline rapper, and he can be a bit ridiculous when he tries to be one. (He’s “Howard Stern meets Howard Zinn”? Really?) Those battle-raps kill onstage, and that’s probably why he does them, but he’s a much more compelling rapper when he digs deep into himself and mercilessly examines himself to make sure he’s living up to his own harsh standards. My favorite song on The Undisputed Truth is “Freedom Ain’t Free,” where Ali gets into the matter of personal transformation: “I killed little Jason; he was only fifteen / Sewed his good traits together, made Ali / Filled his lungs with the Koran until he breathed / Let him walk but kept him on a short leash.” He also does a couple of political rants, investing them with a commonsense bluster that elevates them over the usual indie-rap knee-jerk leftism. Between a couple of cold, angry songs about his divorce, he does a song about his son where he tells the kid not to worry about what happened between his parents. On those songs, Ali takes a good hard look at his own life and the world around him, and I like those songs a lot more than the ones where he tries to live up to his rap persona. Most rappers thrive on fantasy, on building themselves up to be the people they want to be. But I get the feeling that Ali is already the person he wants to be, so I like it a lot better when he just talks about who he’s become and how he became that person. Here’s Ali on the last song: “To me, not broke is rich / Got a two-bedroom, a nice sofa to sit.” He’s a well-adjusted man.
All of the tracks on the album come from Atmosphere producer Ant, and those beats have an organic heft to them, refashioning bits and pieces of 70s soul and acid-rock and funk and reggae into gooey, warm boom-bap. That warmth works beautifully with Ali’s righteous fury. But “Faheem,” Ali’s song to his son, was even more powerful when he did it onstage at Irving Plaza last year a capella: “I just pray you don’t remember us sleeping on the floor / And me cleaning mouse-dropping out of your toys.” And then, talking about his reluctance to tour: “I try to say I do it for you / But in my heart, I know that’s not entirely true.” So I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that any rapper with the capacity for that sort of brutal self-examination wouldn’t want to reduce himself to a cheap gimmick. I wonder if he’s ever even considered it.
Voice review: Amy Phillips on Brother Ali’s Shadows on the Sun