Brother Ali – Secrets & Escapes

4 out of 5

Label: Rhymesayers

Produced by: Evidence

Across his many, excellent albums, Brother Ali has always presented a slick, smooth sound. This supports his narratives, which often cover family and community issues, with a very strong and confident sociopolitical stance. Working with, most often, producer Ant, Ali’s flowing lyricism is precise, but the rapper’s delivery allows in a beautiful bit of rawness, and of fragility, which is enhanced by the warm, soulful beats backing him.

Secrets & Escapes is quite different in all regards, while also remaining wholly and recognizably Ali. Even visually it stands apart, with the artwork a disruptive image of a face submerged in water – drowning? – quite different from the celebratory posturing or more artistic frontispieces presented on other album covers; this is paired with minimalistic, see-through labeling on the back cover, creating both a stripped down and arresting look combined. The lyrical content bears Ali’s poetic wordsmithery, and his mix of boom-bap and rhythmic flow – with some perfectly guest stars countering that style on select tracks – but the subject matter feels instantly more personal, and nervy. On the one hand, his rhymes about personal truths and finding one’s way aren’t like a 180 from his more directed observations on the world at large, but they feel purposefully confined – off-the-cuff; paranoid, in a good way – a way that informs a very raw and biting vibe. This is likely due to the album’s construction, which was purportedly rather off-the-cuff, mapped to locked-down beats – “…records (chopped up) on old-school samplers and (run) through a (2-track) compressor so they couldn’t be re-arranged or mixed” – provided by first-time collaborator Evidence, with the duo consciously avoiding productions that ran to close to the familiar.

Evidence is surely a key factor, here: the producer’s woozy, raw style favors the same era of samples as Ant, but it’s more drunken than slick in application; lumbering up to the speakers instead of swaying. And the above mentioned m.o. seemed to encourage (or align with) a desire to be very present and immediate with the tracks; even when Ali is boasting, it’s from a more claustrophobic, inward-looking perspective.

Secrets & Escapes, maybe not too surprisingly, is pretty short, as a result – just a few minutes over 30 with its 11 tracks. This is very much a “no filler” equation – every track hits heavy, weighted with emotion-fueled swagger – and Evey’s downbeat style pushes Ali excitingly out of his comfort zone at points, eliciting a rhythm of patter and tone of voice that stands out in comparison to how balanced and melodic he normally is. But the album is also very rough; that brevity means tracks get in with their ideas and get out, sometimes to the point of missing a final punch – something that surely would’ve come out in a more typical studio release. Then again, would that same studio release have provided such fresh, vital material?