Brother Ali belts out joy for the good life
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Brother Ali hit the national radar with 2007's The Undisputed Truth, on which the Minneapolis rapper tossed out barbed, perceptive, and often deeply personal lyrics like bombs, from his joy at being a father on "Ear To Ear" to incisive and controversial political critiques like "Uncle Sam Goddamn." He's gained even more recognition for the new Us, which teams him again with longtime collaborator (and Atmosphere member) Ant. Us is all about connections: to his fans, his new family, and his Twin Cities community. Mixing in healthy doses of gospel, funky soul, and blues, Ali spreads a message of positivity with fierce intensity and without downplaying the dark side of life—in the spoken-word intro to the album, Public Enemy's Chuck D calls him “a soldier in the war for love." That fire is, if anything, even more passionate in his live show, and Brother Ali should have plenty to say at his two-night homecoming stand at First Avenue Nov. 20 and 21. The A.V. Club talked with him about putting himself into his songs, the importance of fighting for your identity, and the Berenstain Bears.
The A.V. Club: The Undisputed Truth had a couple of tracks that explained plainly what you’re all about. Now that you're more well-known, do you feel less pressure to do that this time?
Brother Ali: I felt like I needed a new approach. While I was building that reputation for putting myself and my life and my thoughts and my feelings and heart in my music, listeners started telling me that I was writing about them. And the more that I would talk to them, I would realize that our details didn’t have anything in common. And so I wondered if I could stretch that connection a little bit further.
AVC: In “Fresh Air,” you talk about domestic and suburban contentment. That’s rare in hip-hop.
BA: I see a big parallel between that song and some of the stuff that you hear Young Jeezy do, or Jay-Z, or 50, or Kanye. Like [Kanye West’s] “Good Life.” These men went from being extremely broke and hustling and thinking they could get killed at any minute, and because of the way that their music has been received, now they never have to have any contact with that again. They’re celebrating. “Fresh Air” is for the people who are really following the stories. It’s like me struggling to survive in my early music, to literally just get something to eat, and have people know that I make music. And then on The Undisputed Truth, I wanted to actually be fulfilled, to make a conscious choice to abandon my old life and make something new. And then on this one, man, all these things I was struggling to establish for myself, I kind of have them now.
AVC: “Fresh Air” also has what must be the first hip-hop reference to the Berenstain Bears.
BA: [Laughs.] I put a lot of things like that in songs to make Ant laugh. That was 100 percent because I thought Ant would think it was funny.
AVC: “Tight Rope” is partially about a Somali immigrant in Minneapolis. Is that a story you think doesn’t get told enough?
BA: It’s more along the lines of saying, okay, our details are different, but the way we feel as human beings is the same. [“Tight Rope”] is three stories about teenagers who have to basically live a double life because the different roles that they play pull them in different directions. Just to show all three of those scenarios, and there’s judgments [among] all three of those groups of people. In my mind, that was like a pop version of what the whole album was.
AVC: It also touches on themes you talk about regularly, like keeping your identity intact.
BA: Yeah. I think that’s what the album is about. Another layer is getting so caught up in your identity that you forget to just be human sometimes. Sometimes you’ve got to fight for your identity. You feel like your identity’s being challenged. So you get really defensive—and I’m guilty of it too—and say, I am this, and this defines what I am. And that’s cool, but calm down. We’re all human beings. And when we’re dead, we’re just another human in the ground. All that shit is good, and when it can contribute to life, it makes life interesting. But the reality is we’re all just some asshole trying to figure this thing out.
AVC: You show yet another side of yourself on “Bad Mufucker Pt. II” that's pretty different from the suburban side of you.
BA: I don’t ever want to present myself in a fake way, even when I’m telling stories about other people. There’s a part of me that definitely feels that way, that I’m the shit, and I just need to make a song that lets you know that I’m the shit. It starts looking like a gimmick if you’re just like, “We all just need to love each other more, bro!” [Laughs.] I genuinely feel that way. But I also genuinely feel like, you’re not fuckin’ with me as a rapper and I will beat you up. [Laughs.]
AVC: Whereas “Fresh Air” is more like, “I’m the shit because I have these great kids, and this great family, and I like where I am.”
BA: Yeah. And that’s more where I’m at on a daily basis. It’s just me being really appreciative. I wanted to show that because, like I said, for the people that have been following the story, to show that there were some really scary points on those first couple of albums, and even with those, I wanted there to be certain songs where you hear me be scared. But always being like, “I’m doing this because I can build myself a better life and really be happy.” And I wanted to show that it can work. You can sacrifice for years for this idea you have in your head, no matter what it is.