A message to all rappers and artists in general in 2009, courtesy of The Beatnuts: “Watch out now!”
Brother Ali, you bad mufucka, you have done it again. But should this come as a shock? Each and every album or EP he releases is, at the very least, good, if not great. With six previous efforts under his belt, this Minnesota emcee – known for his storytelling, incredible lyrics, and gripping voice – very rarely disappoints. At the most, he might record one track or verse that sounds forced or out of place every few years. Yet, even that sounds like a stretch for this nearly flawless artist. He has touched on topics from across the gamut, brought into his family life, told us just why he’s such a bad mufucka, and so on in his nine-year career. He really is the whole package and then some.
So it’s not surprising that Us is, to be blunt, an amazing album. But the first few leaked tracks did have some listeners thinking otherwise. Well, okay, it was the second leaked track that had some wondering how the record would sound. We were treated to “Us” first and it was tough to resist drooling over the smooth, soulful vibe of the cut. We heard a fine blend of handclaps, a choir, and Ali just spitting from his heart – what’s better than that? But the second track, “Fresh Air”, named for his upcoming tour, was met with mixed reactions. The celebratory hook seemed corny, albeit sincere, and Ali didn’t appear to be saying anything particularly new. It might have been a solid single for anyone else, but we knew this Minnesota native had more firepower than what we had just heard.
Of course, he more than delivered when it came to the entire effort. But Ali and his producer Ant, who you also know as one-half of Atmosphere, put together something more than anyone could have expected. We knew that the beats were going to be “live” in the sense that they would be created by instruments rather than samples and the like. There was little reason to doubt Ant’s ability in that field because he already showed that he could do the damn thing in spades when armed with only instruments. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then you have sadly never heard Atmosphere fantastic last album, When Life Gives You Lemons…You Paint That Shit Gold. It was a chance for both Ant and emcee Slug to branch out. Ant sampled records, but he used live instrumentation instead of getting his fingers especially dusty. Slug spit about people other than himself, though there were a few autobiographical joints on there. And, damn, it was executed nearly perfectly to make a sonically-brilliant, lyrically-tight album.
And with Us, Ant made lightning strike twice. His beats could be sample-based, but if that’s the case, they are interpolated by a live band so good luck figuring out the sources. He also did it in a way that doesn’t leave you wishing for a harder, chest-thumping beat or anything like that. Everything is just as rich and dense as if he was solely digging through the crates. As mentioned, Ant brings out the soul in his beats through incorporating, for example, a choir on the album’s first and last cuts, “Brothers & Sisters” and “Us”. He brings a heavy dose of funk and rock rhythms on the horns- and guitar-laden “The Preacher”, which also features Ali spitting like a young and hungry emcee. But it’s not just an offering of soul and bombast celebrations. The wheezing strings of “You Say (Puppy Love)” could make even the most stone-hearted person shed a tear. And how about that authentic Middle Eastern sound on “Breakin’ Dawn”? Damn, Ant, you did it again. “Breakin’ Dawn” actually features one of the more audible samples on the album, too, unless those slightly-sped-up vocals are the real thing. Then there is the vibes-heavy joint “The Travelers” that makes it sound like you are the same ship as the slaves described in Ali’s lyrics. To use a slightly tired hip-hop adage, Ant kills it behind the boards.
The multi-faceted producer also once again brought the best out of his cohort. Last year, it was Slug. In 2009, it’s Brother Ali. Like his Rhymesayers brethren, Ali has moved away from more self-focused raps to tackle subjects likely outside of his comfort zone – a self-loathing teenage homosexual (“Tight Rope”), rape by a relative or close friend (“Babygirl”), slavery (“The Travelers”), and much more. The most impressive of these more seriously-toned songs is easily “You Say (Puppy Love)”. With those aforementioned strings behind him, Ali unravels why the love of his life needs to see herself as he does. It’s a heart-wrenching, painful, and personal story that he delivers with such a genuine delivery. Good luck not getting choked up. But it’s not just his lyrical skill that is so impressive. There are hundreds of emcees and poets out there with the ability to spit solid stories or lyrics. But many times they are hindered by a lack of emotion or “oomph” in their voices. Not Ali. To quote MF DOOM, Ali has more soul (sole) than a sock with a hole. It’s not just that voice, though, which transcends. He spits with emphasis, pain, joy, and every other damn emotion you could imagine. He also doesn’t rely on one type of flow or cadence.
As mentioned before, Ali is the total package when it comes to rockin’ the microphone. Why? Because he can write a battle rap just as poignant as a morose tale of depression. “Best@It”, which is packed with two solid verses from recent-collaborator Freeway and Joell Ortiz, will have you hitting the rewind button over and over and over and…you get it. Ali’s verse, which is somewhat broken up into two parts, is filled with bars that are likely to leave your head spinning. And he does it for nearly two minutes straight. It’s filled with internal rhymes, flawless breath control, nonstop delivery, and enough braggadocio to scare off even the most seasoned rapper. But can you blame them upon hearing lines like these: “I give ’em what I can/When I’m in the jam I get to spittin’ so ridiculous they pissin’ in their pants.” This is just something you have to hear if you don’t understand how absurd that is from merely reading it. He breathes equal amounts of fire on tracks like “Bad Mufucker Pt. 2”, the sequel to one of his finer cuts off his Champion EP. It’s not just shoulder-brushing for Ali on these joints, though. He infuses them with just as much humor as he does mean-mugging. And, perhaps most importantly, none of it sounds forced. It’s frightening how natural he sounds with a mic in his hand.
This album is so near-flawless it would be easy to go on and on about how you need to hear it as soon as possible. But instead, let’s not spoil the rest of it. Us is a 61-minute experience you need to sit down and listen to. You could try doing something else while it plays, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to focus on anything besides Ali’s words and Ant’s beats. With that, I go back to my introductory sentence directed at musicians across the board: Make a better record than Us. I (and Brother Ali) dare you.