Brother Ali, a legally-blind albino from Minneapolis who serves as the Rhymesayers crew’s own KRS-One, has been dropping next-level street philosophy over the span of five remarkable, increasingly-gravitational releases and a slew of underground material. Often abandoning traditional floss-tones for self-referential storytelling sessions that showed classic promise, his angle was never quite the norm – but it wasn’t until Us that Ali has truly taken flight and shined his light outward.
For the first time on record, Ali fully shifts his focus from the autobiographical to a social narrative, entirely abandoning the self-prosthelytizing helium swagger that most emcees ride through their entire careers. Doing so is a literal unshackling of bonds for Ali, who sets upon this remarkable collection of stories like a seasoned street preacher.
This time around, the hooks aren’t just head-nodders – they’re wrecking balls. Ant of Atmosphere returns to the knobs, but concerns of repetition are quickly laid to rest as the album overflows with anything but samples. These are real strings, a full horn section and the lush, soulful sound of an actual church choir in St. Paul, Minnesota. The album reeks of truth and authenticity.
Talk about sure-fire best-impression blessings: Chuck D gives a sermonic introduction to the man in the hymnal first track, calling Ali “a soldier in the war for love” who “carries with him a message of true hope – and true peace.” The message is clear: the prophet has arrived with the community truth, and the shift in focus from self to surroundings is the sonic equivalent of a hard-bred workhorse removing its blinders and running apeshit wild.
In “Breakin’ Dawn,” just try not to feel the gravity in the “preach on, mister preacher man” line over the contagious kick-clap beat. The song’s powerful enough before you dive into the lyrics, which tell a masterfully-spun tale of the disabled son of a slave master who’s only embraced by his family for his singing talent. A sobering story, but that’s just the tip of the narrative iceberg on Us.
A more contemporary narrative arrives in “Tight Rope”, painting the picture of a kid caught between worlds of what’s expected & directed, and within his own heart. Far-too-relatable tales of repressed homosexuality, of a family torn by divorce and the double life a child leads, walking a tight rope between households, never feeling fully at home with either of them, watching as each parent begins a new life with a new family. The isolation is stark.
Over a melancholy xylophone riff “The Travelers” serves a burning backhand slap to the face to the socially sedated, to those who only see the side of history they’re living in. The brutally vivid first verse is chronicled from a slave’s perspective, translating the anguish, rage and confusion of being ripped from family, from culture, from everything that defines a man outside of himself. The second verse flips the script to the opposite eyes, finally asking what impact these unspeakably inhumane acts have had on the society of the oppressors. Asking whether our souls have been stained irreparably as a result, because while the effects of slavery are still starkly visible in America, it’s a taboo subject, a distant metaphor that holds no modern associations in this country. The hook is a gleaming moral mouthful: This is actually true/ now stop and imagine that’s you/ now stop imagining, unravel the truth/ and ask just who is it happening to?
Wait, songs about slaves and slave masters by a white man in the 21st century? What? Why?
“Where did this rule come from that if you’re not part of the oppressed group that you can’t care?,” Ali asked in a recent interview. “What I’m talking about in that song is slavery from both sides,” he continued, “and the way that it ruined all of us. Because we think about it and talk about it like it’s not real, like it’s a story out of The Bible or something, like it’s Noah’s Ark. We talk about it like it’s a fable, and it’s not! That really happened. That’s really how our country started, is that human beings got torn out of everything worldly, and lost everything in this world including names, religion, language, family connection, history – lost their identity, completely.”
“So then on the second verse it’s saying now let’s talk about it from the other point of view. What has doing this to somebody done to us? It’s done something to us. Something’s messed up and broken in our soul. And we can say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ But you’re part of the group of people that did it, and we did not stop it as a group of people… I’m saying as white people, if you’re gonna identify yourself that way, we all carry the burden of this, whether we like it or not. We spend so much time trying to disassociate ourselves from that, and we cannot imagine why we would ever be judged by our group. We’re so appalled, like ‘I can’t believe that you would think that what white people did in history means something about me.’ But black folks have to live with that everyday. That’s a reality.”
The narratives here aren’t artificial ruminations, either; a good percentage of the stories found in Us are honest accounts of actual events – with party-reference shifts here and there to protect the not-so-innocent. While following the piano-led story of “House Keys,” you’re taken for the ride as the long-suffering downstairs neighbor of drug dealers sneaks in one night and jacks their bounty, using the profits to uplift his family and friends. It’s a brilliantly-told anecdote, with Ant’s gut-punch groove laying the groundwork. It may be a great track, but it’s also entirely true. And while it may not have been Ali actually doing the creeping, the story’s undiminished.
There are some landmark albums in the 2009 pile, and there’s still a few months left in the year, but Us is sitting on top of them all so far. It’s a dense, sociopolitical masterpiece. Find it.