TL:DR: FOREST WHITAKER RELEASES HIS FIRST ALBUM SINCE THE BUTLER AND DAMN… IT IS VERY PLEASANT.
Brother Ali is a rapper on the Minnesota-based Rhymesayers Label that I’ve followed ever since I got into hip hop in high school. I found the Rhymesayers label and, more specifically, Atmosphere at one point and I fell in love with that sort of late 90s and early 2000s backpack rap through them. Whether it be Atmosphere, Eyedea and Abilities, Aesop Rock, or some of the Def Jux guys like Cage, and El-P; Rhymesayers sort of introduced me to this whole world that really appealed to an overly-angsty and angry teenager. But Brother Ali never connected to me in the same way. I always respected him and enjoyed his music passively but it just didn’t hit me in the same way Atmosphere’s Godlovesugly or Cage’s Hell’s Winter did. Over the years, as I’ve aged I’ve found myself sort of “getting” his music a little more and this new album, his first in five years, really tipped me over the edge and showed me the artist that Brother Ali is.
First thing’s first, you must know, this album is overwhelmingly and unabashedly positive and full of love. Whether it be the song Own Light(What Hearts are For) or Special Effects Feat. Dem Atlas or It Ain’t Easy, this album doesn’t shy away from telling you about love and even how much Brother Ali loves you in particular. These songs are gooey and bright like a strawberry shortcake with Brother Ali’s jazzy and sincere voice sprinkled on top of it.
Now, it is to be noted, whether you wanna acknowledge it or not, Brother Ali is a fascinating character in his own right. An white albino Muslim man, born in Wisconsin who has had some of the most raucous and politically charged anthems of the passed 20 years to go with his constant political activism. It’s hard not find whatever perspective he holds to be fascinating and engaging.
And this album isn’t all hugs either, there is some deep anger and concern that foam from these songs. A strong example is the song Dear Black Son, which is a song dedicated to his son, who is black and his concerns for his future and his self esteem. I heard an acapella rendition of this song during the latest Atmosphere tour that Ali jumped on and I’m so happy that a full version was on this album.
Another conscious cut that should be mentioned is the song Uncle Usi Taught Me which details the controversy Brother Ali dealt with after his song Uncle Sam Goddamn released, which led to the FBI freezing his bank account. He also mentions his encounter with the TSA when he was heading home from a tour and he was pulled aside as the security checked all his luggage and went so far as to squeeze the teddy bears Brother Ali was bringing home for his kids.
Out of Here is a heartbreaking track that shows Ali dealing with the suicides of his Grandfather and Father as he tries to find an answer for it but of course he doesn’t find one. No resolutions are made and that’s what the track is about. The inability to understand the loss of life that might’ve been able to be reverted by something, anything.
If I could say is a negative of the album is that it might be the production. It is mostly great with Ant from Atmosphere at the helm but there is so much Atmosphere influence leaking onto the hooks and instrumentals that it is undeniable. It Ain’t Easy legitimately sounds like it could’ve been on Southsiders or Fishing Blues. Can’t Take That Away could also fit snuggly within The Family Sign as well. The production on Own Light(What Hearts are For) also leaves a little to be desired with some really awkward synths that really make it sound even more corny and melodramatic, than it needs to sound.
Also, this is an issue with most Rhymesayers’ releases quite honestly and it’s that the vocals are always turned way too high in the mixes. Now Rhymesayers are known for their lyrically focused artist, but come on! Ant has some great and beautiful beats here and I love Brother Ali’s voice but his voice overwhelms the tracks sometimes that it makes the songs feel more sparse than they actually are. It’s quite honestly a testament to how great Brother Ali’s voice and delivery it is that this gripe really doesn’t affect the album too much.
I can understand why someone might not enjoy this album quite honestly though. It is so positive and loving that is comes off very corny and overly fluffy. But it never feels like it’s naive or like it’s trying too hard. It all feels very natural and if you let yourself feel the positivity in this record, there is a lot to be gained from it whether they’re tears or a nice comforted smile.
8.75/10- Pretty amazing.
P.S. If you’re a record collector like me, check out the vinyl package this has. It is quite beautiful and nice.