Brother Ali has never been one for following convention. A large, albino, born-again Muslim who was both a father and divorced at a young age, his elemental brand of blue-collar hip hop sprung up from left field when his Shadows on the Sun album broke him as an underground artist in 2003.
Follow-up The Undisputed Truth, released in 2007, had its highlights but wasn’t the same sound of an alarm waking the listener from their slumber. Us, as the title suggests, finds Ali, born Jason Newman, clinging to the community-minded values that made him. There are more tales of being unlucky in love, religion and living in poverty. He could be accused of ticking hip hop’s cliché checklist, if he weren’t an eyewitness.
Relying on Ant – one half of indie-hop kingpins Atmosphere – for his production once again, there was a danger Us might sound too familiar or derivative but, as it opens with the gospel-tinged Brothers and Sisters, he dodges that bullet. The album continues apace as Ant combines his trademark snapping snare drums with rousing electric guitar loops and a brass section on The Preacher, before the tide ebbs away for Crown Jewel and its lazy, lolloping rhythm.
All artists mellow as they get older and Ali is no exception: he deserves praise for not feigning directionless anger, but there’s no denying that a criticism that can be levelled at Us is that, for anyone familiar with his earlier albums or bounding live show, there’s nothing to make the listener’s blood rush and no lyrics that punch themselves across your frontal lobe like it was a typewriter ribbon. It’s hard to think of another underground rapper who could take a twanging, southern-fried ballad like Breakin’ Dawn and make it sound strictly hip hop, but it comes at the expense of the shock and awe he’s capable of delivering like a right cross.
Us has enough world-weary wisdom to impress anyone who lends him their ears, but Ali’s partly fallen into a trap he dug himself and needs to rekindle the fire in his belly if he’s to get out. --Alistair Lawrence
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