Part of what’s made Brother Ali the best indie rapper of the decade has been his remarkable lyrical and musical evolution, and consistently flawless technique and attitude. With his fourth album, Us, Ali’s subject matter has come full circle–as he rapped on the opener to this record’s closest predecessor, Shadows on the Sun (2003): “I see all this from the desk that I write my rhymes from”–while his style and sounds keep exploring new territory.
His self-produced 2000 debut Rites of Passage and the break-out sophomore album Shadows were heavy on Ali’s hungry battle-rap delivery of autobiographic visions of his hometown, Minneapolis, tempered by endearing, self-deprecating humor and boisterous bragging. Already, though, Shadows was infinitely richer than his sparse debut, due in part to Ant (half of Atmosphere) producing the entire record, which he has done on every subsequent Ali album and EP. Between his second and third album–a transition marked by 2004’s Champion EP–Ali’s vision expanded from Midwestern realism to a mix of outraged political commentary and intensely personal introspection. On The Undisputed Truth (2007), his criticisms of Bush-era America may have been in keeping with hip-hop’s prevailing politics–still, delivered more viciously and astutely than most–but Ali’s narration of his own hardships and hypocrisies proved even more moving and heartbreakingly relevant.
After mostly discussing himself and U.S. politics on his last album, Us, as its title intimates, marks a return to the questions of community and street politics that Ali addressed on his first two albums. Before even hearing his voice–which, happily, keeps getting more melodic and bouncy–the Kara Walker-esque album art and Chuck D intro set the stage for a more mature but no less radical and impassioned record. As always, Ali lets forth with an opening throw down, asserting and proving his dominance on “The Preacher,” where Ant mixes trumpets and electric guitar like a vintage Just Blaze beat. Ali boasts: “Me I’m an artist/all y’all are acts/that’s why my heart bleed all on the track/tell me what the fuck’s wrong with that/y’all foreplay and I’m raw-doggin’ that.” From here the album’s sonic moods shift between melancholy and guarded optimism, with Ant matching Ali’s stories with ghostly, weeping instrumentals and upbeat funk, respectively.
Appropriately, Us features Ali’s best storytelling since Shadows, with many of the subjects that needed to be laid bare in the interest of immediacy on Truth now layered into uneasily familiar stories of greed and loss. Among the most haunting are “House Keys,” where Ali’s protagonist robs the dealers upstairs; “Babygirl,” where he explores a lover’s emotional scars; and “Slippin’ Away,” which charts the enduring love and sudden death of a childhood friend. As on his early records, Ali uses these tales of tough lives to portray their hardened subjects in a softer light, bringing us into each story with evocative details and impassioned delivery. This isn’t just rehash of his earlier narratives, though: Ali sets these moving mini-tragedies against the inhospitable and treacherous world he’s been touring almost ceaselessly all decade. His fatigue and weariness informs his characters’ frantic decisions and sad fates. On “Slippin’ Away” Ali laments: “They buried my brother/I was on the road/by the time I got home the ground was cold/got nothing left but a hole in my soul/shit, dude was 23 years old.”
After The Undisputed Truth‘s prevailing tones of moral crisis and outrage, and last spring’s ebullient The Truth is Here EP, Us is thoroughly depressing (and phenomenal). On the album’s few upbeat, hopeful moments, Ali’s voice gets bouncy, sing-song-y and sunny while Ant relishes the opportunity to lay down retro grooves. Triumphant highs are especially prevalent on the positively funky “Fresh Air”, the Southern-tinged, laid-back lyrical beatdown “Bad Motherfucker Pt. II” and the closing title song with its angelic, clapping choir.
The album’s two dominant tones, gloomy neo-realist narrative and bright battle-rap bragging, collide on the album’s best song “Games.” Over Ant’s ceaseless, raging synths, virtuoso bass and electronic organ crescendos, Ali’s breathless, heartfelt lyrics stretch and squeeze to fit around the beat’s unusual peaks and valleys. In three verses he creates the most vivid images of alienation and abandonment of any rap artist this year: “The schools ain’t savin’ our new generation/stare at our kids/they need a paradigm shift/the paradox is their parents aren’t shit/why you got cable/your life is not stable/lights not paid for/Nikes on lay-away though/it’s like we wanna look good while we drownin’/should grab a paddle and scrap our way out.”
Coming after the hyper-political Undisputed Truth, where the messages and motivations were overt, Us takes several listens to get into. It’s an album about the infinite complexities, contradictions and nuances of human behavior, not the single, indisputable truth about an evil regime. This makes it a much richer and more rewarding album–one that will stay relevant much longer–with the details, themes and allusions layered into Ali’s stories and Ant’s beats still trickling out on the tenth listening. Amazingly, the best underground MC just keeps getting better, even when he abandons geopolitics for his original subject of choice: Us.