"Brother" Ali Newman is a Minneapolis-based emcee who is both legally blind and suffers from albinism. As Ali tends to talk shit about every single interview he's done where the author can't help but harp on the one-two punch of what sets him apart from every other white rapper on the fucking planet, I figured I'd just get that out of the way now, since neither of those traits takes away from the fact that he sounds pretty goddamn great behind the microphone.
After recording his demo tape, he caught the ears of indie label Rhymesayers Entertainment, which quickly offered him a deal. Although he produced the songs on his demo-turned-debut himself, he soon found himself working alongside Ant, best known as one-half of the duo Atmosphere, and they churned out albums side-by-side. The Undisputed Truth was Brother Ali's third full-length project, released in 2007.
I decided to start here, as opposed to the beginning of his catalog (which I have a tendency to do), because The Undisputed Truth received almost unanimous critical acclaim when it hit store shelves. It's a concept album of sorts, loosely based around Ali's divorce, his struggle to gain custody of his son, and how he overcame the odds to live the comfortable life that he can share with his family (one that is filled with IKEA furniture - hey, he never said he was rich: he's signed to Rhymesayers, after all). The Undisputed Truth was also the first of Brother Ali's albums to be distributed by the Warner Brothers music machine, which meant that you could easily find it in big box stores such as Best Buy and Target, and that his music probably plays at the bar of your local Chili's.
Don't hold that against him, though.
1. WHATCHA GOT
The Undisputed Truth kicks off with a knocking Ant instrumental, one which Ali attacks like a starving artist presented with half a Big Mac. The first chorus takes place on an entirely different planet, apparently, and doesn't gel with the track, but the rest of the song (especially the actual verses) are pretty fucking great. In lieu of a third verse, Brother Ali steps out of the way for some tactical scratching that complement this introductory missive. Nice!
2. LOOKIN' AT ME SIDEWAYS
Ant's beat is also pretty moving, although not quite as much so as the previous song. It doesn't really matter, though, since Brother Ali runs through two long verses without breaking a sweat. Our host drops the idea of "saving" hip hop from its current captors during the second stanza, which focuses solely on talking shit while working around his religious beliefs, but that's for the best, as personally, I'm sick of hearing people talk about bringing real hip hop back: it hasn't worked for any of these other motherfuckers, so what makes you so goddamn special? Anyway, this was still pretty potent today.
3. TRUTH IS
This was good, but it didn't hit me as hard as the first two tracks on The Undisputed Truth. It isn't really anyone's fault: Ant's beat is decent, and Ali's three verses connected in a way that the bland chorus just could not. But the end result is a swing and a miss. Songs that preach about ways to make the world a better place ("Children need to hear more truth when y'all teach 'em") that also manage to work in the phrase "Who the fuck want what" can't be all bad, though.
4. THE PUZZLE
I absolutely hated the instrumental on here. Just couldn't fucking stand it. The combination of the twang-y loop and the vocal sample used during the hook just made me want to strangle Ant with the cord to his cell phone charger. Which is a shame, because Ali's lyrics on here were pretty good. The first verse helps build up the listener when life's got them down, and the follow-up features our host admitting that his life isn't all that great right now, either. This is all expressed in a relatively short song that does wonders for proving that Brother Ali has to deal with the same shit that a lot of you two have in front of you. Sigh.
"Pedigree", although a bit corny, still swings The Undisputed Truth back in the right direction. It's altogether pleasant, with two solid verses accompanied by a sing-songy chorus that probably would have sounded terrible coming from any other artist. Somehow Ali makes it all work, and for that, we salute you.
This is as close to an attack on those who think of Brother Ali in a pigeonholed manner solely because of his skin color as we're going to get on The Undisputed Truth. The funny thing (well, not funny "ha ha") is that, well, Ali actively shuns his own skin color, primarily because he can't relate to white people due to his experiences growing up, even though white people relate to him for the most superficial of reasons. Ant's instrumental is poppy: not too poppy, so you won't hear this on the radio ever, but poppy enough to turn off hardcore hip hop heads who may skip to the next track before understanding how conflicted and upset Ali sounds on here.
7. FREEDOM AIN'T FREE
I couldn't get into this track. Lyrically, I appreciate that Ali rhymes about personal experiences more than he trash-talks, and this song, which follows his decision to convert to Islam as a teen, is no exception. But Ant's instrumental, with its hints of reggae and its overuse of the "R&B sample as part of your hook" idea, loses me entirely. It is what it is.
8. LETTER FROM THE GOVERNMENT
I didn't care for Ant's beat on here, either: apparently I prefer his work on Atmosphere albums. I really liked Brother Ali on here, though, as his three verses questioning the logic behind being forced to join a military for a government that you didn't vote for, to fight in a war that you don't support or agree with, all sound really fucking concise. Our host is smart enough to not go so far as to talk shit about those who choose to serve their country, but his point is still valid even today, especially as we're still in the middle of a fucking war. What the fuck?
I'm really not.
10. LISTEN UP
Ant and Ali go the old-school route with a sing-along chorus that sounds like a hipster impersonating a party rap song. That sounds like an insult because it is one. Ali sounds alright on his actual verses, though this song doesn't resonate as much as the rest of The Undisputed Truth thus far. I don't remember disliking the production on this album so goddamn much: Brother Ali's powerful bars deserve complementary beats. I'm probably alone on this, though.
11. TAKE ME HOME
Meh. Today is just not my day.
12. UNCLE SAM GODDAMN
That title can only be for one of the album's pillars, and the combination of Ant and Ali don't disappoint: finally, they both sound like they're on the same page, even though I have a feeling that Ant doesn't share Brother Ali's controversial thoughts about his home country. Our host's alleged hatred of the United States isn't as hard-hitting as one would imagine: I think that even Ali realized that he happens to live in one of the only countries on the fucking planet that allows him to practice whatever religion he feels most comfortable with. He doesn't get overly political on here: he just seems to question everything the government says and does. He's like Michael Moore, but without a crappy movie like Canadian Bacon under his belt.
13. WALKING AWAY
Ant brings a blues-y production to Ali's breakup tale, on which he takes the high road, refusing to stoop to the level of his now-ex and, instead, wishing her well in life. Possibly the calmest breakup on wax today. I dug it, though: it shows how much Ali has matured as both an artist and as a human being, even as he slickly talks a bunch of shit and alleges that she tried to kill him. Weird, that.
Ali drops a quick one-verse wonder dedicated to his son Faheem, which is both sweet and pretty fucking good, thanks to Ant's instrumental. Almost as though he was anticipating young Faheem listening to "Walking Away", he's quick to discuss how relations between himself and his mother broke off without resorting to backhanded potshots, which is admirable, as I'm a firm believer that talking shit about your child's missing parent is one of the worst fucking things you can possibly do during your kid's upbringing. Ali handles everything just right, though.
15. EAR TO EAR
Brother Ali ends The Undisputed Truth with the final chapter in what has become a trilogy of autobiographical tracks, this one describing how happy he is now that his ex-wife is gone, how he's since found love, and how proud of how smart and resourceful his son is. What makes these songs work is how genuine Ali sounds: you can actually hear the motherfucker smiling a big goofy grin during "Ear To Ear", which is a rare trait to find in our chosen genre. A pretty goddamn great way to end things.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I wasn't kidding about Ant's production on The Undisputed Truth: a lot of it rubbed me the wrong way, so much so that I don't understand what the fuck all of the other critics in Blogland were smoking. But Brother Ali's lyrics help the medicine go down, so I'm convinced that everyone else heard a special advance pressing that consisted solely of acapella performances. To be fair, not all of Ant's beats are bad: in fact, some of them are pretty awesome. This is the Brother Ali show through and through, though, and his powerful lyrics almost make the case that the words are more important than the music. Almost. This is me we're talking about. Anyway, The Undisputed Truth takes numerous side trips of varying degrees of quality, but overall, this album is worth your time and money. As such...
BUY OR BURN? ...you should buy this album. Missteps aside, this holds up extraordinarily well today, and Brother Ali isn't only talking shit on here, which was a nice change of pace after this stunt month,
BEST TRACKS: "Whatcha Got"; "Faheem"; "Ear To Ear"; "Pedigree"; "Lookin' At Me Sideways"; "Uncle Sam Goddamn"