Brother Ali’s Return to Social Hip-Hop
During an era in which constant artistic change is celebrated, Brother Ali refuses to budge. After a five-year hiatus from releasing new material, Ali has returned with All the Beauty In This Whole Life, a record that continues to ask the questions and stomp the grounds of social and political activism that have defined his musical career.
The past months have seen the country and world move further than ever from the merits that Brother Ali touts, and All the Beauty confronts many of these very issues. As within all of his previous work, Ali is most successful when delving into content with nuance, or approaching ideals through anecdote. “Dear Black Son” is a poetic response to the police brutality and black marginalization that has all but ushered in a second civil rights movement. Playing out almost like a Moth Story session, Ali reflects on the impact that albinism had on his youth in “Pray for Me,” a heartbreaking reflection on the cruelty that defined his childhood and the roots of the acceptance that he found in the black community.
Perhaps most poetic — and certainly most timely — is “Before They Called You White.” By placing the so-called “white” community of the United States under a microscope, Ali dissects how the lower classes of Europe evolved into a culture of prejudice. “At what point did poor European people that used to rebel / against the ones that forced them to work land they didn’t own… Start to identify with power even though they’re powerless? / Identify with wealth even though they’re broke?”
Brother Ali’s response? This was “the invention of whiteness.”
Ali took a brief hiatus from his longstanding partnership with producer Ant on his previous release Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. Their union, however, has been reinstated on All the Beauty, and with it comes all of the expected highlights and drawbacks. Almost entirely loop-based and melody-driven, Ant’s compositions function most effectively when his mixing abilities are allowed to rise to the foreground. Even when working with such a rhythmic and articulate emcee, Ant perfectly allows Brother Ali’s vocals to rest above a well-tempered bed of acoustic instruments and drum programming.
In addition to his prior records with Brother Ali, Ant is known as the producer for Atmosphere. As has become familiar in Atmosphere’s output, though, Ant has the capacity for a obtusely sentimental and sometimes mawkish approach. Rarely diverging from the tonality of a major key signature, the upright piano and electric guitar that he features constantly on All the Beauty can become tiresome, especially in the more somber moments on the record. “Out of Here” begs for greater harmonic interest; “It Ain’t Easy” and “Can’t Take That Away” resolve almost laughably to their home key time and time again.
Even for these occasional musical flaws, and the occasional lyrical moments in which Ali bypasses nuance for bluntness, All the Beauty is largely a success, and a welcome return of one of the few remaining champions of classic and unadulterated hip-hop.