Brother Ali: Us

Say hello to one of hip-hop's best albums of the past 10 years. Brother Ali and Ant have done it again.

Brother Ali


Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
US Release Date: 2009-09-22
UK Release Date: 2009-09-21

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 us 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 has 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", which makes it sound like you are on 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. However, 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, that 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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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