The first MC heard on Brother Ali‘s third full-length, Us, is not the Rhymesayers heavyweight but rather one of his icons, Chuck D. Chuck intones an introduction for Ali, listing off divisions that plague humanity and offering Ali as “a soldier/ in the war for love,” one who carries “a message of true hope/ and true peace” that might overcome these divisions. There’s an audible hint of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” with Chuck channeling Thomas “TNT” Todd, the voice sampled for the song’s introduction. On that song, Todd intoned, “Matter of fact it’s safe to say that they would rather switch/ than fight.” For Chuck, and in turn Ali, “I think it’s safe to say that we/ are our only hope.”
Ali has been preaching across the land and across the world, and this weekend he comes home. He and the other members of the Fresh Air tour will perform twice this weekend at First Avenue: an 18+ show Friday night and an all-ages early show Saturday night. He’ll be sharing the stage with the most recently-signed Rhymesayers artist—Evidence of Dilated Peoples—as well as two other Rhymesayers artists, both of whom released their debut albums this year: MC Toki Wright (A Different Mirror) and DJ BK-One (Rádio Do Canibal).
Any Rhymesayers homecoming show is an event, with rapt audience attention, hands immediately in the air, and memorized lyrics shouted throughout the set. (Hearing 1,000-plus people shouting “sexy ass me” when Ali performs crowd favorite “Forest Whitiker” is still one of my favorite hip-hop moments.) This weekend’s shows shouldn’t be any different.
With a voice hoarse from the previous night’s show, Ali tells me over the phone that Us “is less overtly political.” Listeners won’t find the Washington-targeting venom of “Uncle Sam Goddam” or “Letter from the Government” on Us. His goal for the album instead, he says, is “for people to stop feelin’ so disconnected from each other.”
One way he does this is by taking stories from those to whom he’s close, as well stories of his own life, and expanding their meaning beyond himself alone. “The ones that are literal stories are about my relationships with the people living out the story,” he says. “It’s not me just telling a third-person account of something. Because these people are such a big part of my life, the stories are still kinda mine…it’s just that I’m not the main character.”
There’s the person who slyly robs an upstairs-neighbor dealer on “House Keys,” the one attempting to help and comfort a woman beaten by her husband on “Baby Girl,” and the main subject of “The Travelers,” with its harrowingly vivid depictions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its consequences. It is a testament to Ali’s strength as a person and an artist that a song like “The Travelers” or, similarly, the thumping-work-song slave narrative of “Breakin’ Dawn,” can appear with “Fresh Air.” The album’s first single, the song is a joyful recounting of the story of Ali’s success, measured not by cars, clothes, and hoes, but rather by Saturday morning cartoons, a mortgage on a new house, and watching Conan O’Brien.
Part of this new life is his wife, with whom he now has a daughter (in addition to Faheem, a child from his first marriage). The string sample on “You Say (Puppy Love),” with its insistent vinyl pops, starts off in the emotional range of its parentheses, yet quickly moves to an arena at once mysterious, heartbreaking, and comforting, matching perfectly the intense love that Ali has for his wife as well as the utmost respect he has for her individuality and freedom. On this song, as in many of the songs of this type on Us, the feelings etched into these stories manifest itself in Ali’s delivery, his voice cracking under the emotional weight.
For Ali, the track that best summarizes the album is “Tight Rope,” a three-verse song telling three separate stories of people pulled in two directions simultaneously: a Minnesota Somali, a child with two families after a divorce, and a young gay man in a conservative Christian family.
“Society would say that these people are so separate,” Ali says, “but their experience, if you break it down to a human level, is so similar that really all three are going through the same thing.”
There is one division that Ali’s more than happy to perpetuate, though, and that’s between himself and anybody who would want to question or challenge his ability on the mic. Like the best of MCs, Ali can tell you why he is one of the best MCs. On songs like “The Preacher,” the Stag-o-Lee-channeling “Bad Mufucker, Pt. II,” the laid back and imagistic “Crown Jewel,” and the ferocious “Best@It,” Ali easily shows he can go to-to-toe with anyone out there. These songs, while certainly inventive and exciting when paired with producer Ant’s beats, don’t possess nearly as much weight as the rest of the album.
In the end, however, Ali returns to a more humble purpose, closing with the track that gives the album its name, combining his own story (“and not just be the new kid that’s albino/ Make ‘em say ‘yeah I know but have you heard him rhyme though'”) with what he views as a higher calling through his art (“‘Street preacher’ what a fan once called me/ I’ve been called worse and tried to live up”). This weekend at First Avenue, Ali will certainly meet his goal of bringing people together through stories and beats: “There’s no more me and no you/ it’s just us.”