Taste The Secret

When it comes to the battle for rap's soul, the genre has an eight-ton devil on one side and a microscopic angel on the other. Even underground rap, which ostensibly functions as a more authentic and challenging alternative to the mainstream, is infected with a free-floating cynicism that often hardens into misanthropy. Consequently, innocence isn't a word that gets bandied about much in rap, but it definitely describes Ugly Duckling, a trio of earnest white Long Beach kids who make feel-good hip-hop that couldn't be less offensive. The group fits loosely into the retro-minded wing of the underground occupied by groups like Jurassic 5 and People Under The Stairs, but its guilelessness makes even those affable types sound bitter by comparison. Ugly Duckling's bright, bouncy music and goofy story-songs hearken back to a pre-gangsta era during which huge choruses were commonplace and pop-rap didn't yet carry the stigma of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Ugly Duckling's Taste The Secret is a concept album of sorts depicting the moral clash between the malevolent fast-food franchise MeatShake–where everything, from the salads to the shakes, contains meat–and its antagonist, a vegetarian restaurant manned by spacey hippies. It's a clever, though characteristically silly, device, but Ugly Duckling doesn't need gimmicks to win fans. Less jazzy and more rock- and pop-influenced than the group's much-loved debut album Journey To Anywhere, Taste The Secret skids by giddily on buoyant beats and gently satirical songs that take aim at posturing macho men ("Mr. Tough Guy") and needlessly profane motherfuckers ("Potty Mouth"). It's unlikely Ugly Duckling will succeed in changing rap's moral tenor, but it's admirably intent on leading by example. Brother Ali isn't quite as squeaky-clean, but his impressive debut Shadows On The Sun is nevertheless informed by the traditional values of his Muslim faith. The latest rapper out of the Rhymesayers camp, the label responsible for Atmosphere and Eyedea, Brother Ali embodies many of the label's virtues, from a willingness to explore a broad spectrum of emotions to a casual disregard for rap's unwritten codes. "Room With A View" opens Shadows On The Sun by conveying the sights, sounds, and turmoil of Ali's Twin Cities as vividly as Nas' indelible oral portraits of New York. Brother Ali raps eloquently and passionately about being a married, faithful, 250-pound Muslim albino from the upper Midwest, but his songs should resonate with anyone who feels like an outsider. Deftly produced by Ant, Shadows On The Sun alternates between ferocious battle-raps and personal, conceptually ambitious songs. On the album's best track, "Forest Whitiker," Ali achieves a lasting peace with his unconventional looks that feels both heartfelt and hard-won, while on the witty "Prince Charming," his cocky would-be lothario slowly but surely devolves from an unusually intense suitor to a psychotic stalker. As Shadows On The Sun's only guest, Slug showcases a formidable chemistry with Brother Ali as they tag-team on "Blah Blah Blah" and "Missing Teeth." But Ali proves throughout his debut that he can carry an album by himself. As a hulking Muslim albino, he may stand out, but as a rapper of depth, intelligence, and integrity, he's even more of an anomaly than might be expected.

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