Brother Ali is back with his latest heartwarming and faithful LP. The record is a guide to personal healing and a masterclass in storytelling.
On All The Beauty In This Whole Life, Brother Ali sounds like your oldest friend who has finally come back home. Man, does he have some memories —and some lessons— to share. Clocking in at an hour of meticulous storytelling over Ant’s simple yet lush production, this record is one that’s meant to grow with you. Brother Ali has built a career off of making albums that both he and the listener can embody and carry with them, and this one is no exception. All The Beauty In This Whole Life is a lustrous and genial intersection between the personal and political, and it should not be slept on.
With all of the sign-of-the-times records coming out, this LP is the most self-soothing. Most of the cuts move through and compel you like a springtime breeze. Bright accents on “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)” foreground this crisp sound: they could be lightning bugs or they could be dragonflies. The track itself is a road map to spiritual healing, but you don’t need a religious background to appreciate lines like:
“Sometime I feel like a stranger, maybe I ain’t from here
World going crazy, how could that be unclear?
Know that I’m a soldier, heart’s on my battleground
Sword in the holster, had to come back around”
As the clouds come in, we get the political overtones that are a staple of any Brother Ali project. “Before They Called You White” examines the construction and hypocrisy of whiteness, while “Dear Black Son” takes a tender and personal approach to discussing race in America. Framed in the spirit of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “Dear Black Son” has Ali baring his vulnerable, paternal side:
“Dear Black Son, I can’t protect you like I want to
I never judge you, all I can do is love you
And that’s all anyone can ever do is love you
All I can do is wonder how can anyone not love you?”
As Ali has a tendency to get pedantic on his records, the moments where he injects his personality into a track are much appreciated. The bit of humor on “It Ain’t Easy” keeps the song from getting heady. Asking “not to debate politics in the pool,” keeps the record self-aware and quotable. I imagine if you feel otherwise you can probably shoot Brother Ali an email about that, too.
For all the warm moments on the record, Brother Ali’s flow is not without texture. The opening track, “Pen to Paper,” has Ali spitting some visceral bars about his dedication to hip-hop. While at this stage in his career he doesn’t have to prove to anyone that he’s got authority on the mic, this track should ease the mind of any straggling naysayers: “I knew that telling that truth is costly no one alive can stop me.” On the single “Never Learn,” there’s even more bite to the wise-man’s cadence. He spits with an emphasis on the downbeat, adding in a little element of funk. On “Uncle Usi Taught Me,” Ali raps with a bounce and a swagger, and glides through the spoken word portion of the track. In terms of vivid storytelling, “Uncle Usi Taught Me” should be considered a rap standard.
If this record is missing anything, it might be risk in terms of the production. Almost every beat Ant crafted for Brother Ali was near-perfect for him, perhaps to a flaw. After so many years and so many projects, the type of beats Brother Ali sounds good on aren’t much of a secret. Given Ant’s body of work, it’s surprising that he didn’t try to bring more inventive production to the album. Maybe the conservative range of the music could have been excused if there weren’t also moments where the production felt like scraps from Fishing Blues that were tailored for this record.
All in all, Brother Ali really outdoes himself with this project. Each track has it’s own personality and Ali’s flow and his voice are timeless. He has the uncanny ability to spin a topical rap into an infectious tune; he doesn’t lecture. As a result, even the most political tracks have casual replay value. On All The Beauty In This Whole Life, Ali plays to all of his strengths, making the album one his most personable in recent memory. This is an album that will stay with you for years, if you’ll let it.