Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Day Twenty-Nine: Brother Ali - Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color



Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0152-1

Released September 18, 2012
Produced by Jake One


Side One:Side Two:
  1. Letter to My Countrymen
  2. Only Life I Know
  3. Stop the Press
  1. Mourning in America
  2. Gather Round
  3. Work Everyday
Side Three:Side Four:
  1. Need a Knot
  2. Won More Hit
  3. Say Amen
  4. Fajr
  1. Namesake
  2. All You Need
  3. My Beloved
  4. Singing This Song
While the big names like the Beach Boys and the Beatles inspired the conversation my father and I had about "alphabetical imbalance" in music collections, I have no good explanation for the imbalance in my rap. I know it's something less than a favourite genre for a number of people I know (including the above person), but this is almost it for quite a while--and then almost it for good. Electronic music is "worse"--I've got three more of those in my entire collection. In any case, we've had a semi-glut of late, and I'm not going to apologize for any of those, but I do understand the fact that for many that's not going to be the most interesting part of all of this. Still, this is my collection, and I went with alphabetical order to avoid any deliberate weight being placed on any genre, artists, or anything else. I feel like this still sounds vaguely apologetic, which I guess it still is, in a way, but the reality is, this shouldn't be taken as yet another album to skip for the unfamiliar or those who feel they do not like rap (to whom I always say, as I do with comic books, metal, electronic music, silent movies and various other niche genres--"You haven't read/heard/seen all of them. It's a medium, and a style, and there's a lot of variation within, and a lot to take out of them").
I've mentioned Brother Ali plenty already, in that his DJ was responsible for one of the other albums I recently covered, and he even made a few appearances on it. He was the first artist, too, that I really branched out into after Atmosphere got me back into rap. There's a logical reason for this, in that the production on his actual debut studio album was handled by none other than Atmosphere's own Ant. However, his style is a lot more traditional as the underground rap scene goes, calling more to mind rappers from the 80s than contemporary "backpacker", "conscious", or "emo" rap. Though he has guested with Atmosphere previously (such as on Seven's Travels, the other album of theirs I have on vinyl--on which he even beatboxes!), Ali has often occupied a place a bit away from the rest, even as I eventually wandered off into Aesop Rock (whose Labor Days or None Shall Pass probably should have also appeared here somewhere--though it would just make the alphabet issue worse) and Sage Francis (Personal Journals will not be appearing on this blog, though it easily could have been). My friend John said Ali's style reminded him of Public Enemy, which I actually relayed back to Brother Ali himself, who was understandably flattered and told me PE were his heroes growing up (he has worked with Chuck D since then, each appearing on the other's records since). One of the shows I saw him at was actually one where he opened for Rakim, of the seminal group Eric B. and Rakim (from whom I only have a 12" single, vinyl-wise), which was an entirely different audience from the one I saw at every other hip-hop show I've ever been to.

 Ali has had some troubles with pigeonholing over the years, as you might be able to guess from the album cover above. Yes, he's white. Yes, he's an albino. Yes, he's a Muslim. While all those things inform his identity and a lot of his (often personal) work, it is nothing like all there is to him. This is less than news to those of us who've followed his work--he has told his own story over the years, about the end of his first marriage, his son Faheem, his neighbor Dorian, the place he grew up, the way he found Islam, the way he grew up, on and on. To me, this has only ever been a hook to get people to pay attention, generally when they are overwhelmed by the volume of rap available, or when rap is inherently unappealing (or even musically valueless) to them. Let's just get that established now, though, and move on--it's nothing to do with the end result, whether we're talking about his debut Shadows on the Sun (so long as one doesn't count the cassette-only Rites of Passage), or this album, which is only four months old at time of writing.

Apparently the track "Uncle Sam Goddamn" from The Undisputed Truth (released back in '07) earned Ali a report with the Department of Homeland Security (!) and that is just one of the strongest indicators of how things changed for him in the years between then and now. Now he has changed his language in many respects, including some I witnessed when seeing him live. He has since said he regrets the anger of "Uncle Sam Goddamn" in some measure--the song being a reference to Nina Simmone's "Mississippi Goddam", a song of frustration at the continuing violence despite the Civil Rights movement (the church bombing in Alabama, and the lynching of Medgar Evers), and has been through upheaval in his career and home life, addressing a moment of writer's block in a song that ended up not appearing on any album (though it is available digitally). In most interviews surrounding this album, Ali has said that he aimed to move away from completely personal material and into more general social and political material--the same idea as "Uncle Sam Goddamn", but with a different tone. Of course, as is ever the case with him, he addresses all of this in his music anyway.

I was going to split this up into the two "halves" of the album, but he's said the transition to the "Dreaming in Color" part occurs around the track "Fajr" which closes Side Three, and hardly makes for an even split. There are two bonus tracks with the digital version of the album, included as a download with the LP, which come closer to evening the split as they are both more in the "Dreaming in Color" vein. As this is about the vinyl though, it's just going to be a straight ahead run-through instead.

Featuring the most unusual guest star is the opening track, "Letter to My Countrymen" which is effectively the album's mission statement: "This is a letter to my countrymen/Not from a Democrat or a Republican/But one among you that's why you call me brother/Ain't scared to tell you we're in trouble 'cause I love you". Expanding on the beats Jake One lays--a new sound for Ali, who has been produced by Ant on all his previous endeavours--there are various live players throughout the album, and I'm not going to pretend I know Jake One's style (or these musicians) enough to be able to tell you where the crossover occurs. A fuzzy bass is not only what the song opens cold with, but what defines it. Ringing bells--of the kind played in music, rather than Hunchback style--punctuate and bring a brighter note to the song, the pealing of hope that Ali has found in a country he was utterly disillusioned with previously. A sampled voice singing coolly, "Sooner or later" is the song's hook and just adds to the positive message Ali is trying to put forth.

A much harder drum beat, introduced with horns, gives a much stronger edge to "Only Life I Know", one of the album's singles (insofar as that term continues to mean anything, anyway). Ali rhymes about the limitations of the lower class in American society--the struggle to move past the restrictions placed by financial and social constraints. A brief soul-esque sample, "It's my life", is answered by Ali himself: "the only one that I've ever known", as he himself started in that part of the country. He lists the three major routes available to escape--trying desperately to be a good citizen and crossing your fingers, selling drugs (probably ending in either death or prison), or welfare, where the reaction tends to be condemnation, suspicion and criticism, rather than understanding. It's a standout track for the album overall, as it hits the generalized territory that Ali is aiming for and does so in a nice, hard track.

"Stop the Press" has warm soul-sampled sounds swirling in to easy, comfortable, relaxed keys. An occasional snare-based beat keeps the song moving, with horns occasionally trying to give the song more force. But really it feels like it's all about to break out from introduction and into a movie. Ali, though, is using this opportunity to explain everything that has happened since around 2007's The Undisputed Truth, from the death of fellow Rhymesayers alumni Eyedea (RIP, Mikey), the professional exit of BK-One as his touring DJ, and his discomfort with 2009's Us (though he makes an allowance for the quality of the two tracks I actually thanked him for in person--"Babygirl" and "Puppy Love"). It's his chance, he's said, to explain how this album came to be, and what set him on the path to his change in attitude and focus.

Short of the digital version, the only title track on the album is "Mourning in America", a track based on a bumping, bass-kick based beat and synth lines that spread evenly for much but occasionally sprinkle in in a style vaguely reminiscent of the lo-fi Casio lines that defined a lot of early 90s gangsta rap. The track is about the endless bloodshed of war, and the idea that innocent death doesn't reflect well on anyone, regardless of the nobility of intention or actions that lead to it. The video transitions an implied terrorist with a soldier, which upset some people, but was about the idea--not that soldiers are evil, but when someone is directed to kill and innocent civilians are put at risk, the line between the two becomes thin. Indeed, Ali actually shows far more sympathy to the soldiers and what they come home to, which is not a great set of circumstances. The song actually has a short bridge from a choir composed of various voices (including Aby Wolf, who has worked with Doomtree and appeared on BK-One's Rádio do Canibal, as well as recording her own material). It's another heavy, thoroughly unhappy track, but this is the portion of the album aligned with that half of the album's title, and obviously this track makes that most obvious.

Still a little grittier on the end of Jake One's beat, "Gather Round" uses a loaded guitar lick and a heavily rhythmic track to back Ali's discussion of the darkness of the world, the innocent death, the trappings of the world--and how the good in the world see this as a time to "Gather 'round", to come together and fight back against these injustices. He includes an excerpt of Amir Sulaiman's poem "Danger" performed by Sulaiman, too, that draws the line of justice repeatedly, showing it between all the extremes. Ali also takes this moment to hint at his personal feeling of mis-step in "Uncle Sam Goddamn"--"Couple years ago I made a statement/Can't think a single Goddamn way to change it".

Returning to territory that is less dark but no less pessimistic, "Work Everyday" is all tense strings, until it breaks into the looping beat and sample of "Every day every day have to work everyday". No surprise, then, that the song is about the financial limitations of the working classes. Low pay, limited job availability, the difficulty of managing emergencies and the inability to take time off or have a moment to breathe--but all balanced against the constant act to work within this system, unfair and absurd though it may be. The territory is not far from portions of "Only Life I Know" but manages to distinguish itself, even as it addresses the attitude toward anyone seeking welfare again. He doesn't avoid a knock against the Tea Party and conservatives ("How absurd is this?/How are so many poor people conservative?"), but explains those rather than leaving it at that.

Sampling UGK's Bun B, "Need a Knot" is the story of a "hustler" who "ain't sellin' cocaine/[He] got a snowshovel". "I need a knot, whether the bread is for me or not", Bun B rhymes, as Ali relays this character and expands his territory from cocaine to marijuana and prostitutes. Relaxed and bass and drum machine snare (808, I'd guess) reminiscent of many a classic simple rap beat defines those choruses, but a horn-heavy variation is the order of the day for the verses. As is his knack, Ali hints at the damages these activities cause to those involved outside "himself", the abuse of prostitutes and the addictions of his customers--it's reminiscent of "Prince Charming" from Shadows on the Sun in this sense.

A favourite subject of Ali's, "Won More Hit" is about the exploitation of black americans. An overtly electronic intro turns to a kick-based beat that glitters with 8-bit style keys and other distinctly electronic moments. In totality, Ali covers the move from slaves and the spirituals they sang to find some kind of hope in that situation, on into the assimilation of the blues, jazz, and other black music over the years: "Treat you like a hero and we all gon' come and see you/In a big fancy theatre dressed in a tuxedo/But we gon' have to seat you in the kitchen when we feed you/A place this regal doesn't serve your kind of people". The kind of "You understand, don't you?" tone is captured perfectly, as is the willingness to appreciate the emotional expressions of a people consistently left to suffer in spite of that appreciation.

I somehow doubt Ali will ever quite go back to songs like "Champion", pure braggadocio and withering insults. Still, "Say Amen" is in that vein. While a guitar winds downward over congas to introduce it, the main beat behind it is crunchy, driving guitar riffs and bass-kicks merely accented with snares. the beat just drops over and over, carrying the exact right tone for this kind of song. Ali's spitting is not quite like it used to be on this subject, as his insults carry a different sensibility than they used to: "Fuck no homo, you a no home owning old grown/Unsigned chump month behind on your car loan". And he finally comes to the point that I've made mention of before: "I ain't bitter or a backpacker or conscious/Just want ya'll the fuck out my hear with that nonsense". considering the variety of limited descriptors applied, it can only be coincidence that he and P.O.S., possibly my two favourite emcees, are both stuck with these ideas and would like to escape them without completely denying their relevance--"I'm more than this", instead of "I'm not this".

Considered by Ali to be the start of the "Dreaming in Color" portion of the album, "Fajr" is a reference to one of the daily prayers of Islam, that of the dawn: the moment between darkness and light. Heavy on an organ sound reminiscent of church organs (not a sound foreign to Ali, who was originally raised Christian, and who has used this kind of sound previously on tracks like "Forest Whitiker" on Shadows on the Sun). It begins a sort of quartet of personal songs about important parts of Ali's life. A choral recitation forms the chorus and ascribes to it the connection to "Lord", and makes it clear--alongside the verses and their discussions of the philosophy of his understanding of Islam in the context of American culture, including the varying perceptions and the need to prove them wrong, to act rightly because it is the right thing to do.

Ali admits pretty readily to a measure of ignorance when he was offered his Muslim name, being unaware of its origins, and instead associating it with Muhammad Ali specifically--who, of course, did at least get the name in the same fashion and thus from the same origin. He chose the name for this reason, even though it was not the reason it was offered, primarily because of the story he knows and relays in the song "Namesake": after returning with his 1960 Olympic medal, Muhammad Ali and his friends were refused service in a whites-only restaurant. Ali has alleged that he then threw the medal into the Ohio River, feeling it was worthless if it did nothing to help improve the status of blacks in his homeland. While the accuracy of this story has been debated (including the words of some of Ali's own friends), it's one that Brother Ali finds inspiring for its selfless and symbolic nature.

Ali has never been one to shy away from talking about his son, as the very first song on Shadows on the Sun makes clear: That's when the greatest hits of Donny Hathaway/Got interrupted by a drive-by shooting half a block away/Faheem was in the window/He didn't get hit though/All praise to Allah..." On The Undisputed Truth, it was just blatant: track 14 is titled "Faheem", and on Off the Record, the Brother Ali/BK-One mixtape, "Original Prince" is actually performed by Faheem. "All You Need" is his latest message to his son, and much like the hair-raising moments he manages in "Stop the Press", he tells us the story of what really broke up his original marriage. He has hinted at it, but now he lays it all out, telling Faheem he wants to know him the whole truth of his life, to be open and clear, not to demonize, but to avoid excusing, either. He doesn't burn, much as he didn't when telling his ex-wife he was "Walking Away" in a song of the same name, more sad than angry. A slightly sped vocal sample gives the song its title and works with the organ-oriented beat to give it all a sort of hope in spite of its subject matter.

"My Beloved" is a paean to his wife, most of it directed to her, but a good portion extolling her virtues as a human being and a friend and partner to him to listeners as well. The voices of Choklate and Tone Trezure give him a chorus: "Wherever you go/May the good Lord bless your heart and soul/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved/I want you to know/That your love and wisdom touched me so/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved". His tone softens even more than on previous songs--though not tinged with the sadness of "All You Need". Not quite as exuberantly happy as "Ear to Ear" on The Undisputed Truth, it's still a happy song, and at the end is dedicated to more than just his own beloved, but that of others--I'm guessing Jake and perhaps Choklate and Tone. Ali's primary subject matter has always been dark, but when he turns to the light, it's inevitably something that really touches you as a listener, more than even the empathy for the dark moments of his life.

There are a lot of parallels to previous songs in the album, with the closer, "Singing This Song", reminding in some ways of "Victory (Come Forward)" but so much more positive, optimistic, and good-hearted. It's the sound and the call of the album itself, asking us all to come together and work for good in the world, naming many lost over time--from the famous, like King, Lennon, and Simone, to the less famous, like Eyedea--and some who he still finds inspiring in life, like Chuck D. The album finally closes with a recording of him speaking at a concert: 
"And so if we get anywhere we have to be self-loving enough, to be honest with ourselves, to do some soul-searching. I'm not talking about soul-searching to see what's inside our soul, we got to find out what the hell happened to our soul. We've got to find that shit.I want my humanity back. I want to be a human being again. I don't want that shit on my conscious soul. I want to live in a fair world. We've got to decide to rejoin the human family again. We're not talking just about this case, we're not talking about just this issue, we're talking about whether or not we're going to be human beings again. Peace."

There's one word that sums up Brother Ali in all his career: Honesty. He has always been emphatic about the truth of what he speaks, about the reality of the stories he tells. He has expressed the notion that maybe his fans know more about him than anyone else, but never with a concern or fear, always with a feeling that he needs to be honest and tell the truth in everything he does. There's a reason he wrote a song called "The Truth Is Here", made an EP with the same name, and of course an album named The Undisputed Truth (of course, also a reference to the Motown act). Whenever he sounds like his hopes are overly optimistic, the absolute reality of them keeps it from becoming saccharine or ridiculous. Even before he began to emphasize the truth, it was easy to hear in the way he has always rapped, in the way he speaks between songs at shows.

I've met Ali a few times, as he has always stopped and talked to fans after shows--every time I saw him (beyond the one time I was rushed out by the person I was with). Known by some for my "Crocodile Dundee hat", he tells me that when I wear it, it reminds him of Johnny Winter--one of the few musical heroes available to him as an albino, and a man entrenched in the blues, which connected back to the community Ali always felt most included in, even if a bit generationally displaced. He was never anything but humble, patient and understanding. When someone I knew wanted to see him and didn't get the chance, and I foolishly tried to show him the texts saying so, he gently reminded me his albinism has not done wonders for his sight. When I relayed them and asked if he would talk to this person, he did so happily and graciously, speaking for a few moments to a fan who couldn't make it. He exudes peace and love, which I like to think would make him a little happy, as I think that's what he would want to show to people.
  • Next Up: Lindsey Buckinham - Gift of Screws
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