Reformed Muslim albino MC? That's the last thing you expect when you listen to Brother Ali's mesmerizing, almost smoky flow, but that's exactly who's spitting it - and on Us (his latest opus) he is damn near in top form. Backing him up on his third full length release (as he has for the previous two, as well as an EP) is Ant, a producer best known for his work with the alternative hip hop duo Atmosphere. It's safe to say that he is performing even better than Ali himself; despite the obvious looping, nothing ever gets repetitive, plenty of interesting sounds are thrown in and the production feels fresh all throughout Us' sixteen tracks. The beats reflect the eclecticism often found in this type of underground effort, but the heavy jazz and blues influence to Ant's production, along with Ali's fantastic storytelling, gives Us a great golden age feel.
Things start with a somber choir, but quickly explode with the highly energetic, horn driven The Preacher, a fitting introduction with the potentially unsettling opening lines "If you know me, you know I, love my family, love my god." However, the music is too rousing and his charisma too undeniable for that "whoa, back up there buddy" moment you get with similar lines like "I'd like to talk to you about Jesus," and while the spirituality is a significant theme on the album, it seldom takes more of a role than a setting (especially considering that a few bars later he asks, "what the fuck can stop Ali?").
As mentioned before, the production's diverse feel is a strong positive for the already impressive beats; the eastern twang of Breakin' Dawn has a great, convincingly head-bobbing rhythm, and almost blends with the following The Traveler's Carribean allure so well as to render the gap in between hardly noticeable. Crown Jewel follows the raucous opening with a thick, jazzy atmosphere, and the smooth blues on tracks like the almost harrowing House Keys and Round Here fill out the musical makeup strikingly.
Also very deserving of mention are the stories Ali is able to tell. Babygirl is a particular standout in this department, telling the story of a rape victim with such unapologetic empathy that you can't help but feel a little bit of what the girl he's rapping about is feeling as well. In this day and age, it's great to hear a hip hop artist rapping about anything that isn't, to quote the Eminem skit Steve Berman, "big screen TV's, blunts, forties, and bitches."
Too much of the genre borders on self parody with the repetition of the same old boasts, so deviations are naturally going to be most welcome - but there are times when musing over serious political and philosophical matters can cross the line over to preaching. On the closing title track, he proclaims that in spite of "your religion or your past and your race, the same color blood just pass through our veins." To anybody living in post-civil rights movement America (particularly one of Brother Ali's fans), this is hardly a revelation, and it comes after quite a few other well worn sentiments addressed here.
Preachy while it may be, in the face of the fantastic production and otherwise excellent lyrics, it's hard to dwell too much on this somewhat minor gripe. Brother Ali has put out better work in the past, but Us isn't much far behind, and the album still serves as proof that hip hop has far more to offer than what the mainstream would have everyone believe.