Album Review: Brother Ali-The Undisputed Truth
Brother Ali’s debut record, 2003’s Shadows’ lack of cohesion was best summed up in a ham-handed punch-line, wherein Ali declared he was “a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi.” Sure, if being John Gotti means running interference for Slug, helping him escape a pack of deranged emo chicks. It was the sort of lazy boast you’d expect to hear on a Fat Joe record, not someone being talked up as one of the underground’s newest leading lights.
On The Undisputed Truth, Ali delivers a similarly awkward line, now positing himself as a cross between Howard Stern and Howard Zinn. Stupid, right? But after listening to the album enough times, a weird truth starts seeps into your brain. The dude’s sort of right. For (mostly) better or worse. Like Stern, Ali’s record is instantly jarring, with “Whatcha’ Got” and its stomping electric guitars and snarling snare hits. Brash and confident after his four-year hiatus, Ali sounds fierce and hungry, twisting his preacher’s cadence into a growling, cage-rattling rasp.
Ali isn't hiding what’s on his mind either. With the recording booth as his Sirius Station, Ali balances his tough-nosed persona with a surprising level of candor and vulnerability, admitting to being homeless and touching on the break-up of his ten-year marriage and the death of his mother from cancer. With “Faheem,” his ode/apology to his six-year old son, Ali successfully steers clear of the tired tropes and cloying sentimentality that seem to muck up most rappers attempts at sincerity.
But if you listen to enough Stern, it’s easy to get bored when he runs off on tangents no one but him cares about—a trait, unfortunately, Ali seems to share. Frequently invoking his religious devotion, at times Ali looks less like a revolutionary and more like a proselyte. Meanwhile, on superfluous tracks like “Lookin’ at Me Sideway,” and “Here,” he wastes his time issuing vague missives at critics and such.
Zinn, too, remains a vital part of the equation. “Uncle Sam Goddamn” is surprisingly effective despite a groan-inducing, “Welcome to the United Snakes / Land of the thief / Home of the slave” hook. Meanwhile “Letter to the Government,” tackles conscription with a blunt, forceful approach. Like Zinn, Ali isn’t one for nuance. His protest politics have the zeal of convert, a sincere righteousness that you can’t help but admire.
Sonically, Ant turns in his most consistent slate of beats since God Loves Ugly. Ten years into the game, Rhymesayers’ sonic architect remains criminally underrated perhaps due to the fact that he relies so heavily on classic funk and soul samples. Then again, the guy started doing it four years before Kanye and on The Undisputed Truth, his meat and potatoes production proves consistently satisfying and effective.
By the end of the hour-plus record, Ali comes off as an arrogant trash-talker, a loving father, a struggling worker, a grieving son, and an aggrieved activist, displaying a level of depth unseen in most of contemporary hip-hop. You might not agree with him the entire way, but the gale force of Ali’s convictions and talent will leave you willing to believe most of his truth.
Originally Published in Stylus Magazine
MP3: Brother Ali-"Truth is"
MP3: Brother Ali-"Whatcha' Got"