It’s rhyme time for rapper Brother Ali
Fast-rising hip-hop artist Brother Ali's fifth album, "Us," was released Sept. 22 and has garnered the best response of his career, but he's not letting the praise go to his head.
“I don’t put too much gratification in what other people say,” said Ali, who was born Jason Newman.
Ali, who hails from Minneapolis, is in the midst of a 50-date tour, which touches down at the Paradise in Boston on Sunday night.
“I’m not going to pretend I don’t care what they say about my work, but I was very close to (hip-hop group) Atmosphere when they were coming up,” Ali said. “I saw how they were treated like something great by everyone in the media, and couldn’t do anything wrong when they first came up. And then, I don’t know if it was that everyone expected them to crossover, or do something more mainstream, but they never did.
"Their music kept getting better, and the crowds kept coming out, but suddenly everyone was tired of writing about them. I saw that happen, so I try never to get too high or too low about anything that is said or written about my work.”
Brother Ali is produced by Ant, who is one-half of the hip-hop group Atmosphere.
“When Ant and I finish a CD like this, we knew very well where it was strongest, and also where it may have been lacking,” Ali said. “I can tell now when we’re doing these shows, where the material really works, and where some of it could’ve been better. So I don’t need to read someone’s else’s analysis of it.”
The new CD’s 16 tracks range from simple love songs to tales about the ravages of drugs to musings on slavery to the need for people to work together. The overall theme might be encapsulated by the lines from the title cut: “Can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free. There’s no me and you, it’s just us.”
Chuck D, who guests on one cut, refers to Ali as “a soldier in the war for love,” while PopMatters.com dubbed the album “near flawless.” Spin magazine praised his “keen social insight,” and in a Pitchfork review that lauded Ali’s empathy and storytelling skills, perhaps the most remarkable phrase was “If rap didn’t exist, he’d be the greatest high school guidance counselor in Minneapolis.”
“I view that as a little jab, although it’s not a mean thing to say,” said Ali. “Maybe this music seems a little touchy-feely for hip-hop to some people. It touches on a lot of things, but it is not about addiction, or slavery, but more about struggle and pain. I really framed this album in a way that it should be a unifying force to overcome pain, for all those of us who feel like outcasts in some way. But because I framed it in a hopeful, unifying way, in some places it gets treated like it’s Sesame Street.”
Ali became a force nationally with his 2007 album “Undisputed Truth,” which mixed tunes addressing social injustice with more personal views of the agony of his divorce. The biggest reaction, though, came from his song (and the video which became a viral sensation on YouTube) “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” an updating of Nina Simone’s civil rights blues “Alabama Goddamn.”
“This is my fifth CD, and I find it odd that most writers still lead their stories with the fact that I’m a white albino,” Ali said. “I understand the idea is to grab the reader with something interesting in the first line, but after five albums, haven’t I established that I have enough of a career to get beyond that?”
Ali, whose Paradise show will be the 39th date in his tour, said his show will include most of the new CD but also selections from all of his albums.
“So much hip-hop is time-sensitive. I don’t want to make music that is outdated after three months, but something that I can perform years down the road,” he said.
Brother Ali’s record label is a small outfit out of Minneapolis called Rhymesayers. This weekend’s show also features BK-One, Toki Wright and Evidence, all artists on that label, too.
Jay N. Miller covers music for The Patriot Ledger. If you have information or ideas send it by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.