Album Review: Brother Ali- All the Beauty in This Whole Life

brotherali album art

Brother Ali, a Madison, WI native based out of Minneapolis, MN recently released his sixth studio album, titled All the Beauty in This Whole Life, on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Ali once again teamed up with Ant (producer for Atmosphere), who he’s worked with almost exclusively in the past save for his previous album, Mourning in America Dreaming in Color, which was produced by Jake One.

For nearly two decades Brother Ali has been spreading messages of love, hope and acceptance contrasted at times with anger, struggle and reprisal. Ali suffers from albinism, a disorder characterized by lack of pigment in the skin, which consequently led to enduring social stigma throughout his childhood. A number of his works portray instances where he was discriminated against because of his condition followed by moments of personal triumph as he overcame his abusers and the mentality associated with defeat.

As a father, Ali often writes songs for his son, Faheem, providing him guidance or letting him know how difficult it is to be a parent who has to make tough decisions. He raps, “I can’t protect you like I want to,” a line that breathes truth to any parent, that no matter what you do to protect your children, they will at some point be subjected to the dangers of the world. In fact, sometimes, all you can do is pray.

Religious themes have become somewhat of a motif in Brother Ali’s later albums. Ali converted to Islam at the age of 15 and is now a practicing Imam. Although religious messages exist in his music, they are not bold advertisements coaxing listeners to follow Allah, rather they are a proclamation of his own spiritual journey to find peace and understanding through God.

In addition, many themes of social justice have been incorporated into his music. He raps frequently about racial inequality, slavery and the U.S. government’s trends to exploit minorities and the working class. He has been arrested in the past for occupying a house in Minneapolis to fight against its foreclosure. He was also recently trapped in Iran after giving a speech on the significance of Black Lives Matter and performing his song, “Uncle Sam Goddamn” on the Combat Jack Show.

Unbeknownst to Ali, and as luck would have it, hip hop music is illegal in Iran, and the event had been televised through all the major broadcasting networks. This led to accusations by leaders of the Nation of Islam calling him a terrorist and stating he was aligned with ISIS. Death threats and lax security at his hotel caused him to flee but his escape was halted when he found his credit cards, phone service and airplane ticket had all been voided. Brother Ali sat at the airport for three days without money or food! His song, “Uncle Usi Taught Me” explains the event in detail.

That said, All the Beauty in This Whole Life does not disappoint in its delivery of Brother Ali’s most crucial topics. “Own Light (What Hearts Are For),” the first single on the album, conveys a message of rejection for the lives we as a whole are sold in order to keep us subdued. Ali raps, “And you know they want to paint us with the same brush / Wanna entertain us ’til we fill our grave up.”

He explains that we’ve been manipulated and controlled through our desires. We’re raised to believe we need to reach certain plateaus in life or we’ve failed. Those ideals cause us to spend our lives worrying about things that for the majority will never be achievable. Ali gives praise to God for helping him overcome these unnecessary desires. He raps, “They’ve been trying to shut us down our whole life / I thank God for healing / You ain’t got to get me lit, I got my own light.”

The production on the track is a gorgeous mix of layered keys, guitars, bass and drums, classic boom bap. There are some smooth vocal parts in the background that fill out and add depth to the beat as well. Ant is known for quality beats that have a soulful, vintage feel to them. Brent Bradley of DJ Booth wrote, “The production on this album crackles with the warmth of secondhand vinyl even in digital form.” I would agree. This beat sounds like something Kanye West or Ryan Lewis (producer for Macklemore) would have produced.

In addition, the music video is visually stunning and opens doors to the imagination.

The second single off the album, “Never Learn,” is one of my personal favorites. It’s the most unique beat on the album. Lyrically it has a battle-rap quality similar to something off of Shadows on the Sun. The instrumental feels like it could be on a soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino film. Furthermore, it reminds me of production from Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, or earlier works such as Portishead’s Dummy.

Brother Ali sings the chorus in a soulful, sorrowful tone as if he were singing “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone.

“I don’t know where to turn 
I hit my head I guess I’ll never learn
But they tell me I should let it bleed, let it sting, let it burn
Get my head firm”    

Once again, the music video is visually stunning, no doubt a lot of time, energy and resources went into these marvels.

Additionally, “Out of Here” is one of the most emotional tracks on the album. The song addresses Ali’s struggles in dealing with the suicide of both his father and grandfather. He raps that he felt to blame for their deaths and wished they had given him a chance to sit and listen. Maybe he could’ve helped them. Toward the end of the track Ali questions his own life and its importance because sadly, the men in his family have all died young. He raps, “Every man before me in my fam died by his own hands / How am I supposed to understand my own role in this plan / When nobody who grows old stands a chance?”

The beat sounds similar to “Don’t Ever F**king Question That” off of Atmosphere’s Lucy Ford EP (another great album produced by Ant), however, it has a much better dynamic range. The beat comes in as you would expect with any boom bap beat, but it soon dissipates into a single acoustic piano riff. As the track progresses, subtle guitar strums chime in between the rhythmic phrasing of Ali’s lines. The minimal nature of the track makes for the perfect canvas for Ali to paint his emotions on.

All in all, the album was well crafted. Ant is a great producer. At times he can be a bit methodical with his production (intro, verse, chorus, repeat), but it pairs well with Brother Ali’s storytelling and preacher-like delivery. The uplifting beats on the album sometimes clash with the darker lyrical themes, but it’s almost necessary to keep you from becoming depressed.What Brother Ali is saying can sound ominous, but he doesn’t want you to feel like it’s the end of the world. He wants you to keep your head up, and if you find you can’t, find God.

How did you feel about the album? Feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

Also, if you are a Brother Ali fan or would like to purchase other albums from his discography, click here.

Emma’s Picks

Albums you can’t find on iTunes: Rap/Hip Hop

52528-largeOne of the greatest aspects of the Murfie marketplace is that it contains hidden gems that you really can’t find elsewhere, for less money. One of my favorite finds is the Rhymesayers 2005 Label Sampler. For those of us who follow midwest hip hop, it’s a delightful mixtape of some of the best: Brother Ali, P.O.S., Eyedea & Abilities, Blueprint and MF Doom to name a few. Capturing the cooperative’s sound and style at that point in time, this collection is an excellent album that flows seamlessly from artist to artist, giving you a sample of mid-2000’s midwest flavor. It’s difficult to find a cooperative record label mix like this elsewhere, so it’s a real treasure to have on Murfie.

ef1c9a24-d351-11e1-ab5a-22000a8c42aeAnother great album I stumbled across is this Uprok Records Sampler. I accepted it during a trade with another member and didn’t really know what to expect. The first listen was a pleasant surprise, and I have enjoyed going back to it time and time again. This record label has since fallen by the wayside as many of its artists joined other cooperatives or bigger labels, so this is a very unique capture of hip hop artists who eventually went in many different artistic directions. Since I traded this disc for one of my older discs at no cost, I got to experience some new sounds and explore more of who is out there and what they’re rapping about virtually free. Trading is great for exploration. Plus, many discs on Murfie are underground or local groups. I highly recommend poking around and seeing what you can find!