Brother Ali’s music does not invite casual listening: It refuses to recede into the background. The Minneapolis rapper grabs listeners by the throat, a crazy-man gleam in his eyes, and angrily demands to be heard. On Us, his deeply humane new album, that mad-prophet intensity can be exhausting, exhilarating, and downright transcendent. Us begins, appropriately enough, in the church, with Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams and political-rap elder statesman Chuck D anointing Ali “a soldier in the war for love.” In another context, that phrase might come off as embarrassingly earnest, but Ali invites listeners to leave their cynicism at the door, as Us travels a sure path from the ecstatic spiritual reaching of gospel to the gut-wrenching truth-telling of blues.
The gospel/blues vibe is musical as well as lyrical: Brother Ali brings the rumbling cadences of the black church to every line while producer Ant complements these tales of woe with greasy blues licks. “Fresh Air” channels the organic, feel-good funk of Sly And The Family Stone for a rapturous ode to being alive. (If only there were more songs that expressed infectious, life-affirming joy over moving into a new house and having a good relationship with an ex-mother-in-law.) Elsewhere, Ali chronicles the agony of The Middle Passage, the enduring scars of slavery, and the travails of a contemporary Somali immigrant torn between worlds in his empathetic ongoing exploration of America’s tortured racial history. Ali takes it back to the church on the titular final track, having led listeners on a sometimes harrowing, sometimes happy, and always emotional journey destined to make at least a few converts out of nonbelievers.