4 out of 5
Produced by: Jake One
While Ali has always been an insightful rapper, over the years and albums his subject matter shifted through variations on an identity: initially internal and poetic, then boastful and brash and name-checking his boxing namesake, then on to the more outward looking and embracing mindset with the appropriately titled ‘Us.’ Continuing that trajectory, Ali sinks into the religious connotations of his name post a visit to Mecca, the quest to be a better person smacking up against a (at the time) recession and the ever-churning political upheavels in America over the last decade, we get the cheekily named Mourning in America And Dreaming In Color, the cover bedecked by a white robed Ali using the American flag as a prayer mat.
Ali’s smooth flowing, passionate rapping style has always been akin to preaching, which has occasionally felt at odds with the darker tales he’s told. As Mourning kicks off, though, Ali hits a solid streak where his smooth, yet propulsive rhymes crackle across as pure inspirational energy, whether via the thesis statement of opener Letter to My Countrymen, or how the follow up Only Life I Know reflects on how this idealized approach gets filtered through day to day triald and tribulations. Track three takes it down to a personal level, tracking Ali’s ups and downs over the years – although this opens up a criticism I’ll get to momentarily – before things get outwardly political with the war-questioning vitriol of Mourning in America. This seems to open the book on the nitty gritty, as what follows are a couple more solid call-to-action tracks and then some contemplations on Ali’s experience with the hustle of the streets on Need a Knot and Won More Hit.
At just past the halfway point, the penitent, hopeful preacher returns to talk about his family, and life, and love, culminating in the sorta cheesy My Beloved before closer (excluding some bonus tracks) Singing This Song cuts in samples from a live crowd to underline the mixed sentiments of hope and frustration that prompted the album.
Like most of Ali’s work, Mourning is poetic, heartfelt, and at times brazenly honest. Also like most of Ali’s work, he’s got a lot to say, which occasionally drags a track out by one verse too many, though Jake One’s production – a switch-up from his usual Ant collaborator – seems to taper this more often than not, with Jake’s hit-maker beats a bit more structured than Ant’s tendency to just ride a rhythm out. Jake’s wider aural palette – dipping into a slight rock influence – is also a boon for similar reasons: Ali’s verbosity and poeticism can start to flow together after a while, but the sequencing of hooks and pacing on Mourning keeps it engaging throughout. (Yes, I’m circling around the notion that I think Ant delivers amazing, deeply soulful beats with a lot of nuance, but I tend to get bored with his sound before the end of any given album.)
Also also familiar to Ali’s past work is the lobe criticism I have: An element of contradiction. This album deals with it better than any before it – it’s built into the album’s concept – but the balance between frustration with the system and hope for something better creates an odd uncertainty underlying the disc. For the first time, Ali attempts to face this head on – talking about both topics at once, admitting he doesn’t know what to do – but then his religious conversion (mentioned in the songs) doesn’t whitewash things, exactly, but seems to shove them slightly aside. I’m not sure how to resolve this, lyrically, but nonetheless, it creates a sensation where you build up some steam and then someone asks you what’s bothering you and you shrug. This is best represented by Stop the Press, which at one point has Ali reflect on his previous release, Us – an excellent album – and mention that his heart wasn’t in it. It’s honest, but it draws into question everything else: Is this album going to retrospectively not have heart in it also?
I don’t want to overstate this too much because the emotions on the disc are complex, and more often than not, Ali nails the tricky balance, besides the fact that the beats and rhymes throughout are solid. But it’s definitely enough of a niggle to unseat the disc’s overall impact and lower the rating a star.
At this point, I don’t know how someone can’t like Brother Ali, as he has so proven able to effectively cross over into different hip-hop genres and offers such a wide selection of smart rhymes and good beats from quality producers. That being said, if Us was a maybe a bit too cheery for you or prior discs too wandering, Mourning is his most focused delivery yet, and might be the release that sways you.