Brother Ali is a rare voice in hip-hop, one of positivity and thoughtfulness, delivering personal and social commentary through lucid lyricism. Given the uneasy social climate prevalent in the USA, this album comes as a shining beacon of light and optimism that acknowledges Ali’s trials, but focusses on seeing ‘all the beauty in this whole life.’
The tone is set on the opening track, Pen to Paper, that acts as an accelerated trip from his childhood to Ali’s current time in life. Immediately, he explores the ideas of using rap as an outlet for his ideals, while touching upon the troubles that this activism brought upon him and his career. As if to indicate to the listener that he does not intend to dwell on his past, the next track is a celebration of life, with Ali’s animated flow and warm guitar riffs and bright instrumentation courtesy of longtime collaborator Ant (who produces the entire album). It’s impossible to not be affected by Ali’s infectious joy. His Muslim faith is a cornerstone of Brother Ali’s music, and he explores the role it’s played in his attitude towards life and himself in a manner that never comes off as preachy or moralizing, instead showing the listener how it’s been essential to his optimistic worldview.
This isn’t to say the entire album is a saccharine affair – there are sober moments that offer a nuanced take on America’s racial problems in a deeply personal context. The incredible Dear Black Son is a beautiful letter to his titular son, offering advice on navigating the trenches of America’s societal and police discrimination, and wisdom on what it means to be a parent. It’s a wonderfully all-encompassing song that explores the psyche of a minority parent. Before They Called You White is thought-provoking, laying out the origins and consequences of race prejudices and ‘whiteness.’ There is the danger of such a song turning into a sermon in the hands of a less-capable MC, but Ali handles it with grace, extending a hand to the oppressors and seeking peace. What distinguises these tracks is a sense of optimism and looking towards the future, despite the powers-that-be, in whatever form, attempting to bog people down.
A few other standouts include Uncle Usi Taught Me, a fascinating retelling of Brother Ali’s trip to Iran, resulting in legal tangles and a hurried escape from the country. No spoilers, but it’s a testament to Ali’s storytelling skills that the track keeps the listener gripped throughout. Similarly, Never Learn is an absolute winner, combining braggadocio with Ali’s signature appreciation of those ideas greater than himself. The beat is alive, while Ali soars over it with a melodic, dynamic flow. This will be on loop for a long time.
All The Beauty in This Whole Life is a truly beautiful album, expressive in the range of human sentiment. Coupling Brother Ali’s powerful lyrics and creative flows with partner-in-crime Ant’s complementary production, with its lush, live-instrument based sounds, has birthed one of Ali’s best albums to date, and easily one of the best of the year. It’s telling that the album is not explicit, with the rare cuss being bleeped out. Brother Ali had clearly set out to create a source of hope in a time that sorely needs some, and he’s succeeded in leaps and bounds. This is hip-hop at its finest, and worthy of every accolade that comes its way.