Monday, May 29, 2017

album review: 'all the beauty in this whole life' by brother ali

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one - because sometimes when you listen through an extended backlog in preparation for a review, it can be strenuous or exasperating or just plain exhausting even if there was a lot of quality in just huge volumes... whereas in this case, it was fun.

So yeah, Brother Ali - I've been hearing praise for this guy for years now, as a populist political MC hailing from Minnesota who has the wit and insight to back it up and who also has the skills of a battle rapper. And what initially caught my attention were the comparisons to Sage Francis, in terms of his origin and initially a fair amount of his content in balancing the intensely personal with fearsome skills - hell, they even battled once. But their trajectories broke in very different directions, with Brother Ali's material shifting to a much more political direction working alongside Atmosphere producer Ant - and this is the political hip-hop I like to hear. It's nuanced and detailed with a lot of great storytelling and framing, but it has the passion and populism to keep it grounded and human, and when you pair it with remarkably solid groove and punch, it leads to relentlessly enjoyable records with rare slip-ups - there's no serious dud in his discography.

Granted, he hasn't always worked with Ant - he switched things up for Jake One on 2012's Mourning In America And Living In Color, which was pretty damn solid - but it has been five years since Brother Ali put out a full-length solo project, and if I was looking for a political rapper to speak definitively on our current situation, I'm not sure I could ask for many more better candidates, and a reunion with Ant could only be a good thing, his production work was easily the best thing about that most recent Atmosphere project I covered on vacation last year. So what does Brother Ali have to say on All The Beauty In This Whole Life?

Honestly, this was a more difficult project to evaluate then I expected, not only in its subversion of my expectations going in surrounding the content, but also the approach to that content. In a bizarre way it gave the same feeling as when I covered fellow Minnesota rapper P.O.S's record chill, dummy earlier this year: where I expected an MC who is more political to ignite the firebrand, instead I got an project that's more relaxed and measured in tone, working to untangle personal struggles and place them in a broader context. Only in this case, where P.O.S often felt most comfortable musing in the tangled darkness, Brother Ali is looking skyward towards some of the brightest music he's ever touched.

And I think it's most appropriate to start with Brother Ali himself - and really, there's not a lot to say here, because there's an authoritative earnest honesty that I've always found compelling in a plainspoken and populist way. Brother Ali is not one to talk down to his audience or place himself above them, and you can tell most of this record can feel like as much of a learning experience for him as it is for his listeners - which again, can be ideal for political art, but in the case of his unpacking of personal fears and struggles still manages have some weight for its straightforward frankness. That's something that did catch me a little off-guard, because beyond moments that do bring a little more sharp intensity in the bars of songs like the opener 'Pen To Paper', Brother Ali handles the more mellow tones across this project by being remarkably direct in his delivery and choice of words, and while I'm a little on the fence on whether this was the best idea - more on this in a bit - I can't deny it helps with the storytelling and populism.

So what is Brother Ali talking about this time around? Well again, outside of the tracks that have more of a narrative - which are among the best on this album - it can be a little unclear. If this record is serving to inspire or evoke feelings of love and beauty, it'll certainly touch on that pretty frequently, from the effervescent calls to love on 'Own Light (That's What Hearts Are For)', 'Can't Take That Away', the first verse on 'We Got This' before he gives the knowing smile to MCs cribbing from him and Sa-Roc steals the entire track to add some real desperate intensity, the peaceful exchange on 'It Ain't Easy' and then the title track, which highlights how dealing with one's personal pain and vices is often the best way to find and appreciate that raw beauty. And really, when this record taps into those moments of coping, it can hit some great tracks that flexes Brother Ali's muscles as a storyteller, from the message of 'Dear Black Son' to slough off the projections and insecurities of white society to embrace a purer confidence that showcases his underlying worry, to the trip to Iran for a conference that saw his message get misconstrued as anti-American rather than discussing systemic inequalities by both Iranians and Americans, to the very personal insecurity of 'Pray For Me', showing the struggles to fit in growing up albino before embracing his own unique path, along with a great third verse evoking how Elvis styled his hair like a pompadour to mimic Muddy Waters... who was doing it to cater his image to white audiences - in both cases, said choices were done for others, not themselves. And indeed, Brother Ali's pieces on race are some of his most striking in describing the insecurity and confused deafness to privilege on 'Before They Called You White', describing the systemic construction reinforced by religion that leaves generations later with 'post-traumatic-slave-master-syndrome'. That said, it is a little jarring when you realize how much religious themes and ideology run through this record, and it can make you wish some of the real self-awareness that colors so much of this record came through here, like on 'Tremble' or 'Never Learn' or especially the anti-porn screed of 'The Bitten Apple', which is one of the few places on this record that doesn't feel nearly as enlightened or considered, and also shows a reflexive disgust against technology that I think will age pretty badly. I get making points against detachment, wanting that human contact for love on 'Special Effects', but when you flip it into the 'society is getting more debased', it strikes me as puritanical in the same sort of way that has Ali say on 'Can't Take That Away' 'I love you and there's nothing you can do about it' - yikes.

Now this takes us to the production, which as I described does aim for a certain clean, melodic presence, with lots of pianos, spiky guitar leads, firm but liquid basslines, and blocky percussion segments that do plenty to support the groove, a brand of production that Ant has been using for the past couple of years now. And I'm not going to deny that for a fair few songs on this record it does a lot for the mood and feel - the damn solid grooves of 'Special Effects' that pull from oldschool soul, the nervous blocky beat and skittering pianos of 'Dear Black Son', the thicker bass and drums against 'Uncle Usi Taught Me', to the bright piano and spiky guitar on 'It Ain't Easy' with a hook that is remarkably infectious. But for as earnest as Brother Ali can be as an MC, there's a part of me that does wish some of this production could pick up a little more of an edge. You get parts - the blocky blasts of horns on 'Pen To Paper', the sleigh bells behind the sharper beat on 'We Got This', the darker smolder behind 'Before They Called You White' - but ironically when this record's production does pick up more bite with the big oily spurts of horns on 'Never Learn', the scuzzy guitar on 'Tremble', and the harmonica and weedy guitars on 'The Bitten Apple', they just don't connect in the same way. Maybe it's an issue with tempo or the grooves not having the same tightness, but in comparison to the sandy, barren melancholy of 'Out Of Here' which shows Ali coping with a friend's suicide and knowing the legacy it holds in his family, they're notes that I feel could have been handled better. But overall, I find a lot of this production is working to soften edges around Brother Ali and while there will be an audience that appreciates it to make for more teachable moments, I'm not always sure it plays to his strengths as a MC or to the intensity and nuance of his content.

So as a whole... man, I'm conflicted on this album, partially because while I'm sure it's a very good record, I wouldn't really call it a great one. His mid-2000s work tends to stick with me a fair bit more - even though there are big chunks of Us I really enjoy - and I kept finding myself looking for a record that cut deeper than this did, or was willing to really challenge Ali beyond personal struggles that feel like they were already laid to rest. To me this feels a little too neat and polished, with some of the messaging resonating and others reflecting a lack of insight that I hope to see from someone like Ali, especially with the even-handedness and honesty behind his convictions. As such, from me I'm giving this a strong 7/10 and a recommendation, especially to all the fans who I guarantee will have heard this already, but for a solid staple I have heard better in his discography. Still, if you're curious and looking for a worthwhile exploration into a fascinating back catalog, Brother Ali is certainly worth your time, so be sure to check this out.

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