A girl whose first sexual experience was a molestation is encouraged to overcome her trauma and learn to feel real love. White Americans are confronted with their role in the legacy of slavery and their responsibility for the cultural and social structures it left behind. Immigrants, a child of divorced parents, and a self-hating gay teenager get a keep-your-head-up. The ostracized, leprous son of a plantation owner learns to sing from the field hands, only to reject his family's adulation of his talents when he realizes they won't let those same field hands inside their house. These are some of the ways Brother Ali focuses his storytelling talents on Us, and I just wanted to mention that as soon as possible because some people may prefer an advance warning when a rap album is filled with what is perceived as moralistic sermonizing.

But this isn't "moralistic sermonizing" where Brother Ali is concerned-- it's displays of a humane, often-troubled conscience. For an MC who has so many tracks which denote his "bad motherfucker" status, his persona's dominated by a welcoming strain of populist empathy, an attitude that offers an accessible solidarity just for listening. And unless you happen to be someone who thinks he's a better MC than Ali is, this man will not actually talk down to you, no matter how sociopolitically agitated he gets. If rap didn't exist, he'd be the greatest high school guidance counselor in Minneapolis. But as a talent in a scene that holds decades' worth of some of the most sensitive identity politics of any popular culture movement in the last 50 years, Brother Ali has had to put that populism to good use.

The political material on Usis powerful without being self-righteous: "The Travelers" runs through every dehumanizing abuse in the slave trade in its gutwrenching first verse, then spends the second hinging on culpability, complete with an admission that he's been "terrified to admit it's wrong/ 'Cause I'm hiding in the ruins of a legacy that still lives on." The blues-cadenced "Breakin' Dawn", meanwhile, works in both a literal and allegorical sense, with the story of the master's son taught to sing by the slaves a fable that also hints at latter-day whitewashing in the music industry (and, by potential extension, that theoretical listener who bumps Brother Ali without paying heed or respect to his influences). And while "Games" resembles your typical get-off-the-corner message rap on the surface, Ali puts himself on the hustler's level instead of scolding him. Still, the man does have his limits: "House Keys" has his family moving downstairs from the second floor of a duplex only to find that his new upstairs neighbors are a bunch of noisy, bickering small-time drug dealers, a problem which he addresses by sneaking into their place when they're out, stealing all their shit, and selling it.

He does have moments where he makes himself the subject, whether needy and heartbroken on "You Say (Puppy Love)" or rolling his eyes at haters on "Crown Jewel". And there's still plenty of times-- "Bad Mufucker Pt. II", "'Round Here", "Fresh Air"-- where he seems content to rattle off gratitude-swagger testimonials to his own career, a tendency that's served his style well from the beginning. I've read a few dismissals of Ali's style as a blatant copy of Pharoahe Monch's, and I don't quite hear it beyond the subtle debt practically every indie rapper ever owes Organized Konfusion: Ali's lyricism forgoes Monch's rewind-provoking abstraction for an approach heavy on straightforward scene-setting, willing to sacrifice complex internal rhyme schemes and rimshot metaphors if it means he can paint you a clearer picture. With those strengths, he's somewhere between the intense street-scholar style of Freeway-- who appears, along with Joell Ortiz, on the shit-talk highlight "Best@it"-- and an eloquent everyman like Murs, who has a non-rapping cameo telling an amusing story about how Brother Ali's mere presence cooled down a tense situation. Dude can still be pretty acrobatic when he wants to-- "The Preacher" makes for a hell of a skeptic-converter-- yet there's also a clarity and non-pretension to his lyrics that, coupled with the smooth rasp of his voice, makes them fully attention-commanding.

It should be noted that this album's original title was Street Preacher, a concept that still manifests in a few spots (like the Chuck D intro and the track it segues into, "The Preacher"). And ANT, who's produced nearly everything Ali's spit over since his Rhymesayers debut, Shadows on the Sun, turns in a characteristic set of clean, crisp modern soul that accompanies his usual 1970s-skewing R&B touchstones (mournfully-glimmering minimalist g-funk on "Slippin' Away"; slinky Bar-Kays strut on "Fresh Air") with a gospel-soul current. It's a proper backdrop for an album that stands as the most deeply thought-provoking work of Brother Ali's career, an album that draws its strengths from the simultaneous expression of sympathy toward the people in the songs and anger toward the shit they've gone through. The album's title track is gospel personified-- a choir, handclaps, and a rapt MC laying down his idealistic vision of an America that still feels a long way off: "Can't nobody be free unless we're all free/ There's no me and you, it's just us."

â?? Nate Patrin, September 24, 2009