In the 2010s, the middle-aged rapper has become something of a common sight. There are countless examples of 40-odd-year-old rappers trying their best to do what they did so well at 20-something, to varying degrees of success. Dr. Dre’s Compton, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail are examples from just the last few years, all of them willfully (mostly) ignoring the aging of their primary artists, all of them actually managing to find some success in a mix of nostalgia and midlife crises. These are rappers who didn’t have to grow up, really, at least not in their music; they’re rappers who know how to make hits, artists comfortable in their own personal strike zones. While they might have lives outside of their music, the life inside the music stays essentially the same.
Brother Ali, for myriad reasons, is not like these other artists, not least in that the life in his music is the life outside his music; while all artists put some of themselves into their music, Brother Ali is an artist who’s never been afraid to show his entire true self through his music. This is a tremendous part of what makes Brother Ali’s latest album All the Beauty in This Whole Life so fascinating. He’s turning 40 this year, and for better or for worse, his music is growing up — maturing, even — right along with him.
What does this mean? It means no cursing, for one. More than that, though, is the outlook of someone who’s been there, who recognizes the value in adversity, who manages to see life for its positives and negatives, who would simply like the former to outweigh the latter. It’s a nuanced approach to hip-hop, entirely bereft of self-aggrandizement, fatalism, or overt violence.
Take “Pray For Me,” arguably one of the most impactful tracks on the album. While Brother Ali starts the track by remembering his eight-year-old self as a target of the unfathomable cruelty of other children (“A eight-year-old expert determined I’ve got AIDS / A vote must’ve been taken, it became my name / I mean literally, AIDS is my name, okay?”), “Pray For Me” eventually becomes a story with a happy ending. “Your living is the proof, just let it do what it do / Now watch them follow suit and try to catch up to you,” he says, while eventually conceding that “Somebody musta prayed for me.” It’s a song that goes from horror to sadness, forgiveness, and redemption, all in less than four minutes. Other tracks offer similar tales: “The Bitten Apple” tackles pornography addiction (“Thank god those demons didn’t last”, Idris Philips sings in the hook), while “It Ain’t Easy” is a tale of how anxiety and fear make love difficult that somehow doesn’t forget that love is also a worthwhile pursuit.
Perhaps the most important song on the album, and likely the one whose lyrics best explain Brother Ali’s newly-positive outlook, is the lovely “Dear Black Son”. While the primary driver of the song is race, and what race means when growing up in the modern world, Brother Ali doesn’t let anger or fear for his son get the best of him: “Every single time you shine it’s proof that they might’ve threw a chain around your body, never conquered you / They don’t always honor you but they love your culture,” he says, offering beautifully even-handed advice for overcoming prejudice, dealing with law enforcement, and navigating the burden of expectations.
Brother Ali’s Muslim faith is clearly an inspiration throughout the album, as he has stated in a number of interviews in the leadup to its release, but so much of the album sounds like the way you would explain difficult concepts to a child. It’s not condescending, so much as it’s infused with the constant drive to push forward, to do better, to love harder, in order to improve and sometimes even overcome the problems of this world.
Longtime Brother Ali collaborator Ant does production for the entirety, and it’s fine in that it never really gets in the way of Ali, which is probably the point. There’s a pretty serious easy-listening vibe here that occasionally veers into homogeneity — Santana-esque solo guitars show up a couple different times, the beats are almost entirely mid-tempo, and some guests are used throughout the album, lending it a very specific mood, but taking emphasis away from the individual songs. It’s clearly a stylistic choice, but the lack of attention-grabbing moments actually works against it a bit.
Even so, there’s little doubting Brother Ali’s skill on the mic and his deft touch as a storyteller. All the Beauty in This Whole Life is a solid album with words worth listening to and taking to heart. Brother Ali’s art is aging well, thanks to his fearlessness in allowing that art to mature along with him.