Brother Ali’s latest album was initially going to be called The Street Preacher, before more populist heads prevailed and the title Us won the day. At the risk of reading too much into this switch, the fact that Brother Ali made this choice is particularly telling. More so than the majority of his peer group, Ali seems more than slightly uncomfortable trafficking in braggadocio. It’s there, to be certain, but Ali is typically careful to hitch a few self-deprecating remarks onto every boast. So Ali is willing to acknowledge that he is, in fact, “The Preacher” (allowing himself enough ego to allow that word to be attached to a song title, rather than an album title), but, as he says in the liner notes, this is an album about Us.
Yet, and we can keep noting the dualities of Ali all day, he’s not above bringing a hip-hop luminary (Chuck D.) into the picture to declare at the album’s very outset that Ali is the answer to all of society’s problems, and I mean, all of society’s problems. Time immemorial problems such as “The rich neglect the poor…we’re divided by race, divided by religion.” Obviously, it’s deliberately hyperbolic to declare that Brother Ali is the solution to these constant issues, but again, Ali does call in a friend to do it for him. Between that fact and the humbled sentiments expressed on the album-closing “Us,” it’s clear Ali is a man blown away by what he’s achieved, yet determined not to forget his youthful discomfort and sensitivity.
This is the sort of biographical detail that is unfortunately difficult to ignore, but Brother Ali is quick to remind us that it was not easy to get this far in the underground hip-hop community as an overweight, albino Muslim. Mostly, Ali needed to learn to push past his own expectations of himself, and judging by the front end of Us, he’s made it. “The Preacher” is the listener’s first chance to hear Ali on Us, and he’s clearly firing on all cylinders. Against a backdrop of manic cartoonish funk, Ali clearly and confidently hawks his pedigree, and every listener will be with him by song’s end. One track later, Ali coolly slows the album’s pulse to roughly the same ends as the “The Preacher.” “Crown Jewel,” one of Us’ unquestionable standouts, serves as yet another chance for Ali to demonstrate his ability to control an audience, preferring a calm swagger to the previous song’s frenzied oversell.
Us begins with refreshing verve, but from there Ali travels his usual troubled route, chronicling the ills of society (past and present. from slavery to inner city children’s welfare) with characteristic poise. After the fourth track, Us maintains an impressive level of consistency all the way through to the album’s conclusion, rarely becoming boring but just as rarely becoming transcendent. The production work provided by Ant becomes predictable roughly halfway through the album, but at least it’s predictably solid. The mood is kept generally lively, and Ant has a good ear for the odd instrumental loop here and there (the xylophone of “The Travelers,” and the affected sitar on “Breakin’ Dawn”), but he mostly relies upon bluesy funk to compliment Ali’s enthusiasm.
Admittedly, the album does wear you down before you reach it’s sixteenth and final track, but even if Ali has trouble making tough editing choices, it’s clearly due to an abundance of ideas. Us makes it difficult to miss the clear joy Ali gets out of his job, and even if the result of that joy is a bit overlong and overstuffed, the joy is still infectious.