Review: Brother Ali's "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color"

Review: Brother Ali's "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color"

Minneapolis MC's latest album showcases his seasoned talent and renewed political fervor to striking effect.

Brother Ali, real name Jason Newman, has been red flagged by the Department of Homeland Security, but that hasn’t stopped the rapper from bearing a star spangled one for his latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, produced by Rhymesayers’ Jake One.  The album is advertised as “inspired by his eye-opening first trip to Mecca, the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East, and the worldwide Occupy movements.” The rapper is a devout Muslim from an impoverished background, and so his tradition of personal narratives blends seamlessly with social interest.

His most politically charged album to date does not disappoint. As multi-layered as they are straight up, the activist parables on Mourning are not so anti-nation as anti-nationalist, his hard cynicism spattered with a firing of hope for the future. The opening track, “A Letter To My Countrymen,” starts, “I used to think I hated this place/Couldn’t wait to tell the President straight to his face/Lately I changed nowadays I embrace it all/Beautiful ideals and amazing flaws.” The song closes with a recording by the legendary philosopher and civil rights activist Dr. Cornel West, addressing Ali directly about his dreams to change the world for the better.

The general sound of the project, marked by Jake One’s style, stands apart from the majority of the Ant-produced Brother Ali repertoire as especially fervent and energetic. Each line hits the head of the beat, the meter largely even and consistent. Older songs have been more laid-back, leaning behind the beat and cascading lines into each other. While this new upbeat and straight up sound suits the drive of the album, its consistency makes it hard to distinguish less heavy tracks from each other.  The darkest and most aggressive songs on the album are “Mourning in America,” “Gather Round,” and “Won More Hit.” The first plays on more graphically violent images than Newman has ever touched before, stripped bare of gangster language. The chorus repetition of “Murda, murda” loses all boast in a theme of angst and despair.

Production on “Gather Round” is bitingly catchy. The song is headed up with a powerful, pious spoken word feature by the poet-performer Amir Sulaiman.  Like most of these tracks, the rhymes are not as sophisticated on the level of the syllable as compared to older work. They are nonetheless intelligent, impassioned, and rhythmically tight. “Won More Hit” betrays an impressive duality, drawing the musical roots of the slave generation in line with the artistic oppression of today’s mainstream record companies.

The white-bearded MC has learnt to weave his own personal sentiments into a universal narrative about the struggle of living. “Work Everyday,” which digs at the injustice of the capitalist system, shifts back and forth from first, second and third person over a soulful old school sample. Certain lyrics read as an accusation: “You’re staring at the skies with dollar signs for eyes/The blinded right wing of a bird that can’t fly/Just a peacock with a poked out gut/Who too fat to fly so his ass just strut.” But it also seems that Brother Ali, who is self-proclaimed as legally blind and heavy-set, is intentionally putting himself in line with the accused. Success can be as alienating as poverty, but here Ali shows that he can permeate, and relate to both sides.

“Need A Knot” is chock full of word play that defies the assumptions of the struggling MC,  punning between blue collar and black market professions in the same purist motif as good friend Murs’ “Think You Know Me.” A window of sympathy opens between both job pools in face of “the man,” coined as “Goliath.” “Fajr,” named after the dawn prayer in Islam, and “Say Amen,” take the Brother’s religious scope into a larger social focus. “Namesake,” with its eclectic production, contains the chant “We am, She am, He am, and I am, somebody.” The song recalls a more familiar style of Ali’s, and, arguably, the rhetoric of Walt Whitman.

A long time ago, in the song “Bitch Slap!” Newman called himself  “a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Ghandi,” half public enemy, half pacifist. Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color is a fresh representation of the peaceful violence of words, and the contrary freedoms of living in the United States– with the bonus of a hot sound as its vehicle. 

The album is in stores now, and you can purchase it on iTunes here

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