3 out of 5
Produced by: Ant
From the kickoff of Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth, the appeal of Ali’s style is clear: teamed up with an invigorated Ant, laying down deeply funky and soulful beats that vibe with the MC’s flow, the opening boast track forces its way into your ears, edgy and fun and structurally interesting: breaking the beat; rebuilding it; circling back around.
And as we switch between Ali’s personal narratives social screeds – the latter never far from the former, as the artist has a keen eye on the way cycles perpetuate oppressions he sees and experiences – his skills are undeniable: there’s that unique flow, which crosses between chill and offhand, cynical as fuck, and hopeful and empowering, in a crisp yet sing-song style that’s absolutely made unique and owned by Ali. He truly is an MC who’s a joy to listen to based on his “sound” alone, not to mention the reward of digging into his thoughts, and when a producer shakes things up even more.
But: I was getting into Rhymesayers around this time, and making the tour of a couple of their big hits, which included this disc, and with all of the above noted… it never made its way into my player much. Now, accepting my dumb, tasteless ears, I only much circled back around to The Undisputed Truth when Ali’s followup, Us, did make its way into my player, and quite often. Upon comparison then – including Ali’s work before and after Truth – I think his abilities, and thoughtfulness, and general style, made me a fan, but it took him a few albums to really crystallize all of that, absorbing his various influences and forge a whole identity out of them.
The Undisputed Truth is surely the first major step towards that identity, but it’s still unformed. Ali has evolved past the early days of being a backpack poet, but the more serious subject matter feels rather broad. I remember preparing myself for vitriol on Uncle Sam Goddamn – which is a great track! – and kinda thinking: oh, that’s it?
This is, unfortunately, my main reaction to the album, which comes barelling out and hits many, many highs, with a stream of fantastically soulful and dense backing tracks, but when the boasts fade, what’s left is supremely well packaged and performed, but also kinda in the middle – it doesn’t push once it hits its mark.
And I’ll kind of put some blame on Ant: a producer I’ve always felt is prone to kind of sit back and let a beat play out instead of being a more active participant. This is a good era for Ant in terms of composition, as he started bringing in more genre to his soul samples / template, but only when he and Ali go off a beaten path of verse-verse-verse – Ali is a storyteller, and the tracks do need a bit of borders to keep his points fine – does Undisputed really shine, such as on the moody Here, or some of the impassioned narratives later in the disc, like Walking Away.
The kind of all-in-one approach Ant and Ali are aiming for here was perfected on the B-sides-ish Champion EP, which felt stripped of the pretensions to be the best – ironic, given its title – and just kinda has fun boiling Undisputed’s approach into singles, with more focus in both words and beats.
In comparison to what was around in the scene at the time, I get why this album was notable, and is undeniably a huge step forward for Ali. That doesn’t have to be separate from its criticisms, though, which, for me, amount to its impressive bluster distracting from a more shallow core, which was impressively deepened and shored up on followup Us.
The DVD that comes with some versions of this has some worthwhile interviews with Ali, talking through his inspirations / history – though the sound quality on these are very poor – and some promos hyping up the album from some Rhynesayers crew. The interviews can be a bit sluggish, though, making the main draw several concert snippets, of which the majority sound good and capture the crowd / show energy well.