As if royalty were returning to its kingdom, horns blare on the opening track of Us, signaling that hip-hop’s champion of the underground is back in the ring.
“Hit me hard now,” Brother Ali opens. “If you know me, you I know I love my family, love my god/Before I knew either, I loved my art/So I’m married to the pen, till death do us part.”
In the tradition of its predecessors, Ali’s fourth full-length effort opens hard and fast, bringing the high level of energy that fans have come to expect from the Minnesota-based rapper.
In 2003, Shadows on the Sun brought Ali widespread acclaim from the hip-hop community. Since then, his rhyming style–which ranges from a slowed down, carefree swagger, to a biting assault–has improved in both complexity and flow.
Us is also characterized by major steps forward in Ali’s storytelling abilities, which were never lacking to begin with.
Nobody should be surprised by this. Ali’s own story is pretty interesting. The 250-pound Caucasian rapper is afflicted with albinism, a medical condition which leaves the skin, hair, and eyes without colour. He spent an unhappy childhood moving from town to town before finally settling in North Minneapolis. He converted to Islam at the age of 15. In the years of his career’s rise from obscurity to the top of the underground rap scene, he let rumours that he was African American run wild.
Critics were left without a stereotype to pin on the man. The result lets Ali walk comfortably walk in anyone’s shoes. And it’s the rapper’s effortless confidence to tell anyone’s story that makes Us such an amazing album.
In “Babygirl”, Ali channels the pain of a sexually abused young girl. In “Slippin’” Away”, he rhymes as an inner-city youth, struggling with the competing pressures of his parents and his peers. And in “Tight Rope”, Ali masterfully tells the stories of three teenagers, each facing separate hardships of life in a multicultural society that continues to struggle with its diversity.
“The Travelers” gives a brutal, absolutely haunting account of slavery which sails above-and-beyond the delivery of a narrative to explore the damage that Europeans’ rape of Africa inflicted on not just blacks but all of humanity.
Us is a concept album that gives the impression its songs were inspired by the lives of a thousand real people. Hence the record’s name. It’s a portrait of America that is told with an amazing level of empathy. And it sounds damn good. Entirely produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, Us includes tracks that could almost find their way onto the radio, but overall, remains a soulful product of the underground.
Fans who appreciated the personal journeys that Ali took with his previous albums will not be disappointed. (Shadows on the Sun focuses on Ali’s childhood struggles and the pains of his teenage years. The Undisputed Truth covers Ali’s divorce from his first wife and other personal battles he’s fought since earning a little money from Shadows.) There is enough of Ali’s own life on Us to keep Ali’s own story moving forward. In “Fresh Air”, for example, Ali accomplishes a feat few rappers could, making rhymes about the Bernstein Bears and paying a mortgage sound cool.
But Us isn’t about Ali; it’s about, well, us. Enjoy hearing stories that will move your body as well as your mind.
Download This: "Tight Rope"
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