Thursday, November 7, 2019

album review: 'secrets & escapes' by brother ali

Well, this was well-timed for me - and came right the hell out of nowhere too! In the middle of when I was planning to make a week focusing on underground hip-hop, we get a surprise release - and from Brother Ali and Evidence of all people!

So let me back up - I first reviewed Brother Ali in 2017 for a project I was a little more lukewarm on than I'd prefer after a lengthy deep dive into his back catalog, which may not have been the best way to engage with that album not just because it forced him into comparison with some truly stellar work across the mid-2000s, but that it also remained remarkably solid throughout that crazy year, and the burst of aspirational optimism felt more grounded and human in this time than many other MCs in this lane. But I'll freely admit that he did slip a bit off my radar - as did Evidence, but that was more because he went quiet and I had the suspicion something was up, I just couldn't pin down what. And yet out of nowhere, Brother Ali dropped a short surprise release with the sort of features list that would make any underground hip-hop fan salivate: Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, Evidence himself, all spit over a flurry of samples run through a 2-track compressor and utterly unconcerned with anyone's schedule or attention. Which is a luxury when you're underground stalwarts with diehard fanbases, but I sure as hell am not going to complain about the timing, so what did we get on Secrets & Escapes?

Honestly, I wish I had more good things to say about this project than I do. Yeah, this is a disappointment that kind of caught me off-guard, given that on the surface Brother Ali and Evidence just delivered the sort of lo-fi, hard-edged set of scratchy bangers that are not far out of their respective wheelhouses, with great verses from Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli to put them over the top on a great album. And then eight to ten listens later, I kept getting the feeling that this project was souring on me fast, mostly linked to one deep cut that we'll get to but also how its presence and framing informs attitudes that make me not want to revisit this even as much as All The Beauty In This Whole Life - not bad, but certainly not great.

And believe me, that's the last thing I wanted to think about this project - Evidence made my year-end list last year with the excellent Weather Or Not, and Brother Ali has made classic albums, so you'd think stripping things down to just feature pure bars and sample-rich production would be exactly what they'd need. And on the surface, that's exactly what we get: Brother Ali is framing himself as the outcast elder statesman, who commands considerable respect for his skillset and catalog from the sidelines and out of the spotlight, self-effacing enough to understand his angst and grievances, but with enough firepower to assert himself if he needs to. A flawed man, as the title track shows he's very much aware, but striving for wisdom and almost above the conflicts that would be spurred by any attempt for him to be anything but himself, which is why both Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli's uncharacteristically blunt verses as hard-nosed vets on 'Situated' and 'De La Kufi' stand out so effectively, and why Evidence's verse on 'Red' is so revealing, in striving to move past the performative to hit on reality - because if he isn't showing that truth, what's the damn point? You can tell the state of mind that is most prized on this album is self-awareness, which is why on 'Father Figures' Brother Ali doesn't hesitate to rightly call out United States imperialism and the indignity of getting profiled for mentioning it - not unfamiliar territory for him, but that's pretty true for the majority of what Brother Ali is delivering. And while there is less focus on hooks here than relentless but accessible wordplay, it's exactly what one would expect and like from Brother Ali, all fine and good.

But then comes a deep cut late on the album, the sort of song that stands as by far the most memorable on the project - but that's not a good sign, because Brother Ali made a paranoid, anti-influencer song called 'Red Light Zone'. Get it, because we're prostituting our lives on social media for brand deals, exposure, flexing, the little arts of popularity, and increasingly fragile ego which prevent us from acting out! And yet even despite the usage of the pronoun 'we' and the admission that he hides problems too, lines like 'it's hard to tell a thirsty harlot from a starving artist' - even as he's described himself as such on the previous song, even if he says he's not a product of this 'weak-ass environment' - has the magnanimous condescension of someone not interested in engaging with anyone outside of his sphere, given that he found his lane that's far more spiritually rewarding, and with little of the empathy you'd think an elder statesman in the scene would have, and that's not even getting into the consistent sex-negative framing that had him making an anti-porn song a few years back. And while I could point to, say, Gabbie Hanna's 'Roast Yourself Harder' video as hitting all of these notes with way more populist honesty as a creator working in the space - relevant considering how 'Red Light Zone' is textured with samples from YouTube and IGLive - or how Uncommon Nasa showed real empathy for those in his same lane now struggling on City As School I reviewed just a few days ago, why this song lingers heavier in my memory is twofold. One, it's the most distinctive and fresh content that Brother Ali is exploring on a record that relies very heavily on the familiar - although the reflexive disgust against modern trends is nothing new either - and two, it shows the framing as more ascetic and self-absorbed, especially with the trappings of religion that feign more humility than is actually present as a veteran MC - not good to frame that as enlightened when it seems like there is a lack of curiosity about how folks use those platforms to do more than flex and chase clout, especially the kids today. And what becomes frustrating is that you can tell he's not trying to be outright judgmental or self-righteous - again, self-awareness is a key proponent of his thinking - but from his choice of content to guest stars to even the relentlessly old-school style of production seems designed to reinforce that framing, which leads to an oddly sour tonal discordance for me.

And that's frustrating to acknowledge because otherwise on a musical level, you can make the argument that tonally this album does exactly what it's designed to do, especially against this brand of sample-driven West Coast boom-bap. And really, it's hard for me to dislike anything here - Evidence's style slides more towards rounded, watery samples with flutes or organ, all against a firmer bass harmony and slightly muffled drums, but he rarely compromises groove and Brother Ali can ride them effortlessly. The thicker darkness of 'Situated' with the horn accents and slight bit of guitar sizzle, the lo-fi flutes and bass on 'Father Figures', the more aggressive drum chops and horns around 'De La Kufi', or even just the watery passages off the supple bass on 'Greatest That Never Lived' and 'Red', it's very easy to let these wash over you... which is why the final few songs can feel so jarring. It's another reason why 'Red Light Zone' stands out so much in the wrong way here because the sample choice is clearer and the more prominent, sharper bassline doesn't really match anything else in the mix, and then following it against the crackling beeps and flattened low-end of 'The Idhin' - more of a fragment of a song than a fully fleshed out piece - doesn't help. But that also leads me into questions of structure - this album barely runs a half-hour for eleven songs and there are a fair few that feel a little undercooked, lacking a third verse to deliver that punchline to further differentiate them from Brother Ali's larger catalog, and that keeps a fair few good songs from touching greatness, even if I can acknowledge the cleverness he manages to stuff into what we do get.

But as a whole... man, I really wanted to like this more. In a bizarre way I'm reminded of when Eminem dropped that wretched verse on Boogie's debut album earlier this year in that for me it became the most memorable part of the conversation, and while Brother Ali has comfortably taken himself out of that rat race, the larger questions of framing and thematic direction that show plainly off 'Red Light Zone' coloured my larger experience, especially when otherwise the album is pretty by-the-numbers for Brother Ali, not as bright or melodic or humourous or lyrically captivating as his best. And with that in mind, it's a very strong 6/10 and of course recommended for the fans, but I can't see you getting a ton of replay out of this one. It's good and those who'll just want to hear sharp, well-considered bars will certainly get them, but while I'm not seeking an escape, I am eyeing the exit - just saying.

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