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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Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5