By Sarah Bennett
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By Jena Ardell
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By Alex Distefano
Brother Ali is a harsh-looking young man, originally from Madison, Wisconsin, who moved to Minneapolis at age 15 and quickly got himself dug into the local hip-hop scene. He was and is a white kid to the 13th power—an albino, in fact, thus, it's safe to say, someone who's suffered his share of slings and arrows about skin color.
Maybe you don't want to make too big a deal out of something like that; maybe it's dumb to assume that such an experience would provide an otherwise normal Middle American kid sufficient incentive to beat the best at their own wicked game. Maybe, though, it's precisely the type of impetus that's gonna propel a kid with natural-born brains and creative gifts right over the em-effing top. Whatever the case, it's Incentive with a capital I you're hearing on Brother Ali's brand-new The Undisputed Truth(Rhymesayers), a commanding follow-up to his very fine The Champion EP and stunning Shadows on the Sun album from 2004.
Incentive lies coiled and ready to snap at the heart of all great music, from Beethoven to the JBs. Usually, it means the artist has not just a reason but, buried somewhere unfathomable in the brain or the loins, also a burning need to express, a need that sounds truly like he'd just die if what he had to say didn't get said right—or just plain didn't get heard.
Brother Ali's got that sound, that drive, that believability and, crucially, that affection-inspiring passion on The Undisputed Truth. Teaming again with his longtime producer Ant (who's also Atmosphere's beatmaker), Ali's come up with a slew of stories, scenes and sounds that compel us to really listen to what he's talking about, and, a few braggadocious de rigueurs aside ("Daylight": "Let me unravel my pedigree"), for the most part it's a lot of real serious stuff.
Crucially, the vintage soul- and funk-obsessed Ant and Ali have couched the tunes in an immensely satisfyingly panoramic of great black music, with heavy doses of old-school party-down boom-chicka beat à la Run-DMC, more often electro-tinged embraceables smeared Southern-fried with horny horns, très mellow girly choruses and fucking ace dubwise/Chic-savvy bass. The sum effect is that very telling sort of ironic resonance, where the weight of the words counterclashes with the rich, warm allure of the sound, producing a third entity you might call . . . well, some real memorable shit, anyway.
Stripped of their musical settings, however, Brother Ali's sermons and scenarios would remain agile poetic rants on the disgraceful state of the union and its shameful slave-trading past ("Uncle Sam Goddamn"), various inner-city hells, the sad impossibility of repairing trashed love ("Walking Away"), and, yeah, finding solace in a fatherly God.
A few other notable facts provided grist for The Undisputed Truth, namely that since his last record, Ali divorced his wife of 10 years, became homeless for a spell and had a bitch of a time gaining custody of his son. He also became a devout Muslim. Could be that all these things combined somehow to magnify the album's substantial gravitas. Yet the artistry of the music's arrangement and even the songs' sequencing is more persuasive on that score—the album's got a wholeness to it, not that far removed from what you would have gotten from an early-'70s rock concept LP.
It's like this: Listening to Brother Ali having his say, you don't get tired and burnt-out, like you normally do when you've paid a rapper to yell at you all day. That's a tribute to his and Ant's deeply defined and enjoyably weird mixing art, to be sure. Above and beyond that, though, is the inspiring rush you get from the good-humored, amazingly supple flows of the otherwise deadly serious Brother Ali himself, who, despite the urgency of his message, is palpably buzzed about finally being heard. As he triumphantly proclaims in the insanely uplifting "Ear to Ear": "I was always crazy/Guess it's safe to say/I came a long way, baby."
BROTHER ALI PERFORMS WITH PSALM ONE, BOOM BAP PROJECT AND BK ONE AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA; WWW.THEGLASSHOUSE.US. SUN., 7 P.M. $10-$12.