Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

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Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here

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Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5