Yesterday beloved indie rapper Brother Ali released the free EP The Bite Marked Heart, and if the lyrics from the tape’s seven tracks are ever published they’ll handily double as a great book of relationship advice. It’s not especially romantic, except at the very end (and really, how could the MC who gave us “Prince Charming” ever top that anthem of deferred desire?), but features incredibly candid accounts of the rapper’s relationships, current and past, as well as some richly detailed storytelling. At least I hope the track that ends with “can’t blame you for losing sanity/rolling me over in my sleep and stabbing me” is fictional.
Longtime Ali producer (and half of Atmosphere) Ant split the beat-making duties on the EP with Jake One, making for a mini-album that’s sonically rich and restrained, with sparse but sharp instrumentals. Ali eschews the battle rap beatdowns that are usually peppered throughout his albums for something much more personal and, ultimately, one of his most memorable and sexually charged sets of songs to date.
Between posing as a waiter to talk to a woman in a restaurant in opener “Shine On” (see video below) and narrating a groupie-rapstar encounter on “Electric Energy,” Ali remains incredibly frank and melancholy. The brighter “I’ll Be Around,” with a guest verse from former Little Brother member Phonte, combines lovely piano, violin and guitar loops with a Stokley Williams chorus to wonderful effect. On it, Ali addresses his second wife earnestly: “I know them lonely nights get old/and that bed get mighty cold/and the weight of this family just be resting on your shoulders/a native New Yorker/freezing to death in Minnesota for a man who’s almost always on the road.”
The second half of the EP starts much darker, beginning with the death sequence “I Can’t Wait.” That’s followed by possibly the most moving of these songs, “Years,” where Ali heartbreakingly raps a man’s words to his estranged wife: “That old tree witnessed the first love we made/I pulled out my pocket knife, gave it our names/but like all trees it went and grew rings/and that carving got harder to read from far away.” Things end on a cautiously upbeat note after brutal breakup track “Haunted Housebroken” leads into the closing title track’s hard-won romantic optimism: “Must be the tears of joy that appeared/rose from the morsel of soul that you bared/crawled out of your stare/warmed to my ears/cause ohs and yeahs are all I can hear.”
As a narrative of young love to cheating, breakup and new love, The Bite Marked Heart is one of the most concise yet well-textured romantic narratives yet seen in rap. And whatever your situation, some segment of it will speak to you this Valentine’s Day.
Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt