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.

Pre-Review: Feist Drops Latest Album ‘Pleasure’ Tomorrow!

feist pleasure

It has been six years since Feist released her album, Metals, the followup to her critically acclaimed album, The Reminder. Tomorrow she will grace the world once again with her latest album, Pleasure!

It has been a long time coming, and after listening to Metals on repeat for the last two weeks, I can say I am thoroughly excited to hear what musical direction she takes next. Metals was indeed a step in a more personal direction from The Reminder. The album was criticized as having lacked singles that stood up to hits such as “1234” and “My Moon My Man”. Slant Magazine stated that the album had no “real spark to it”. Additionally, Lindsay Zoladz of Pitchfork Media stated, “it feels like such a refreshing and slyly badass statement of artistic integrity” but still that “it doesn’t reach The Reminder‘s heights.”

Despite a few comments insisting Metals needed something more, the album overall got scores ranging from C to B pluses from various other sources and was considered a success. The album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 selling 38,000 copies its first week, whereas The Reminder debuted at No. 16 and sold only 31,000 copies. Granted the albums were released at two different periods in Feist’s musical career,  it feels good knowing the artists you love are succeeding in their craft regardless of criticism.

I would agree that Metals really had no “true” singles to speak of, but in my opinion, it didn’t need them. The album is a book rather than a collection of news clippings. The tracks flow into one another like the turning of pages. The print is faded in some places and bold in others. Beyond the words there are fingerprints, smudges and coffee stains, the cohesive bits holding what you hear together, in other words the silence. With Metals, you have to listen more carefully to the subtle nuances than on The Reminder. Feist has refined her art, and so it takes an even more refined palette to taste the notes this time around.

The opening track to Metals titled, “The Bad In Each Other”, is no doubt one of my favorite tracks on the album. The guitar lick and subtle percussion at the beginning of the track carries you off almost instantly. The weight of the swelling horns and strings makes you feel like you’re floating down a “neon river” of thick molasses right up until the chorus.

“When a good man and a good woman / Can’t find the good in each other / Then a good man and a good woman / Will bring out the worst in the other / The bad in each other”.

Feist’s delivery of the chorus, although solemn, has a lightness that contrasts well with the verses. If you have the refined palette I mentioned earlier, at this point you can almost taste that first single. Still, the inflection of her words leaves something to be desired. It’s generally an artistic choice of hers to swing her words in ways a pop singer wouldn’t, but if the audience can’t sing it, the song might suffer at the hand of critical sources.

So what is to be expected from Feist after her last project? Will she take the criticism of news sources to heart and strive for an album more reminiscent of The Reminder? I believe it to be unlikely. I believe she will continue to make the music she wishes to make and will stray away from making pop records.

Unfortunately, my opinion is slightly biased due to the fact she released two tracks on Soundcloud, both of which I recently listened to. The tracks are titled, “Pleasure” (after the name of the album) and “Century” featuring Jarvis Cocker. Both of the tracks at first glance sound fairly similar to something you would hear on Metals. They both have an acoustic room feel paired with a distorted or clipping effect on the vocals, however, I am not sure if this is intentional in each of the songs or to keep pirates at bay. Either way, tomorrow is right around the corner. I hope all you Feist fans are excited.

What are your thoughts about the article? Are you a Feist fan? What are your favorite tracks from her last several albums?

If you want to hear more from Feist, click here.

Xconomy’s Curt Woodward has a point…

Curt Woodward reviewed Murfie for Xconomy, and found some areas we need to work on.

First of all, I want to thank Curt for his review. It’s a thorough, fair, and objective take on Murfie from fresh eyes. Good stuff. Some bits of it make me cringe, but we find that sort of thing motivating – we’re obsessed with getting better.

This post is a reaction to and apology for the part of the piece that makes me cringe, and in coming days I’ll also write up some good news for Curt and anyone considering Murfie. Things already in the pipeline address some of his other points – we’re giving greater ease and flexibility for sending in discs, and improving our music player interfaces.

On to Curt’s experience. Anyone can shop at Murfie and buy new discs, customer accounts are free. That said, our core service for music collectors involves importing their existing CD collections and hosting them in Murfie’s cloud. That is a service members pay for. Curt’s review of Murfie therefore included trying that out by sending in a 25 CD kit, with which we gave out an automatic Gold Membership, and that’s where the trouble started.

Curt’s kit experience was far from ideal, and had one key frustration – he didn’t know yet if he wanted an ongoing membership at all, and yet he couldn’t opt out of the one we include with a kit. Since our memberships auto-renew by default and we handle subscription changes via our support desk, this constituted in Curt’s review an “insistence on getting me locked into an annual membership” with “no way to turn off the auto-renew on the Murfie website.”

OK. Yeah. Hmmm. I can’t disagree with that, and it does suck. It makes me feel bad that Curt found our service dodgy in this way, and he’s right to find it overly aggressive. We got this wrong. We should not ‘force’ an auto-renewing membership on someone who sends in a kit, or in fact at all. It’s also not reasonable at this stage in Murfie’s growth to have this be something customers can’t manage on the website.

Therefore, I apologize to Curt and every Murfie member for the lack of control on this up til now, and we’re going to do a few things to fix it:

1. We’ll clarify what paid membership is required for, and how many discs you can send in for free with one

2. We’ll make any membership that comes with a package or kit something you can decline

3. We’ll switch auto-renewal to an opt in anywhere a member buys or accepts a membership, add controls on the website for changing that setting, and keep the current warnings of upcoming renewal

We got here because our member collection hosting products are high touch and often involve some discussion with our customer. As we’ve grown we’ve always handled a lot of things via our support desk, because we have the greatest flexibility and agility that way, where we do our damnedest to satisfy each customer on any request. In this case that and our desire to make subscribing the default to help us grow led us astray. We should have added more user-control to subscription renewal a while ago, and we’ll do it now. I’ll let you and Curt know when it’s done.

Thanks,
Preston – Murfie Co-Founder

photo credit: hannah k

2012 Recap: The entire year encapsulated in one humble blog post

Last year Murfie was a roller coaster. This year we’re an airplane. An airplane during takeoff.

We’ve got our engines roaring, our flaps and slats are deployed and we’re entering the climb phase. We expect a few bumps here and there during ascent (we’re a startup, afterall), but we’re happy to be finally off the ground.

Metaphors aside, Murfie has had a truly jam-packed 12 months. In the year 2012, we graduated from TechStars. We were selected to START, the new, invite-only sister event to the acclaimed f.ounders. (Matt and Preston also researched the differences between Irish and Wisconsin beer.) We closed a new round of funding that added Great Oaks Venture Capital to our list of terrific investors.

We launched our music streaming service. We also launched our partnership with Sonos. Meaning, you can now listen to your entire CD collection on your Sonos Wireless HiFi System at home!

We revamped the site offer and design more than once. (Move fast and fix things is our modus operandi.) We tripled our disc inventory from 100k to 300k. We managed to keep our customer satisfaction rating at a cheerful more or less 95%.

We even got some high-level shout outs from the likes of Yahoo! Shopping, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNET and CBS News.

Forward-looking plans include making the browsing experience for our customers screaming fast, stocking a much larger inventory of new albums, launching mobile apps and additional device partnerships and hitting the 1M mark in our disc bank.

I could keep going, but there’s only so much good news a person can take. ;)

Maybe next year we’ll reach cruising altitude?

Recapping 2011 for Murfie

Looking back, Murfie had a roller-coaster year. (We know, we know…it’s a tired cliché.) Like any first-year startup, we had our ups and downs, but we made it through without falling out of the car. We tried to ride high, with our hands up in the air. We tried to keep pace. We tried to do a few celebratory fist pumps here and there.

In the year 2011, we moved from beta to full release. We recruited staffers by the dozen to operate the, well, operations room. We got a ping-pong table (and then retired it). We garnered shout-outs by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NPR, and Southwest Airlines. We started a podcast. We ordered healthy takeout for almost all working lunches. We solved too many bugs to count. We hit solid marks in customer growth and CDs received.

Moving into 2012, we’ll be doing a whole lot of somethings. We’re looking to fine-tune our mission statement and value proposition. We’re looking to continue building a complementary, cohesive core team. (This one’s important, so let’s take a pause. Business models may shift and ideas may change, but smart people are always valuable.) We’re looking to make all our operational processes more efficient. Above all else we’re looking to reach a larger customer base: we’re excited to connect with folks who want to be part of a media landscape that is ever changing. The question of ownership versus access will continue to take center stage, and we plan to stay at the forefront – making our unique stamp on the digital music revolution.