Rapper delves inward on 'All the Beauty in This Whole Life'
Brother Ali opens his most recent long-player, All the Beauty in This Whole Life, by flashing back to childhood, rapping, “Put pen to paper the first time when I was barely 8 or 9.” But within a handful of lines, he's a full-grown man again, growling about the high costs of speaking truth to power he experienced following the release of his 2012 album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color.
“The U.S. government profiled me and the sponsors dropped me,” he rhymes. “Some of my listeners felt a way so they no longer got me.”
Though the message might have changed in the decades that passed between those bars, the approach has remained remarkably consistent for Ali as he's progressed from adolescence to adulthood, with the rapper embracing hip-hop as a means for transmitting some greater knowledge.
“This is more than music to me; this is ancestors speaking through me,” he surmises on “Pen to Paper.”
“[As a kid], it was a combination of really enjoying the aesthetics of hip-hop and then also what could be communicated. It had so much potential to transfer knowledge and feeling and message,” said Ali, who performs at A&R Music Bar on Saturday, Oct. 7. “That initial kind of magnetic feeling I had towards [the music] is still there. It's just that as life goes on you sort of grow some new features.”
All the Beauty arrives five years after Mourning in America, with Ali taking needed time away to gather himself rather than holding to a label-determined schedule. “I needed to wait until I had something to say, or until I had something driving me other than the calendar,” he said.
While Beauty doesn't shy from politics — “Uncle Usi Taught Me” details a trip to Iran that devolves into the latest in an ongoing saga between Ali and Homeland Security — it's a largely inward-looking record, with Ali continuing his reflections on fatherhood (the pretty, piano-driven “Dear Black Son”) and delving into his first experiences with race on “Pray For Me,” where he absorbs the insults of classmates who tease him about his complexion (Ali was born with albinism). “What kind of crime did I commit for this mockery?” he raps. “Guess I must've lost some cosmic lottery.”
“I think it's easy to focus on the external evil because it's so brash and so brazen, and I've definitely done my fair share of that in my career,” Ali said. “But where I am in my personal journey, I'm more focused inwards. It felt like creating music from that perspective was the only way to do it.”
Despite the various personal and political trials Ali endures throughout, Beauty is a big-hearted record, celebrating humanity even as the artist examines its ills.
“There's so much to critique [in society], but I feel like a focus on connecting with people is something I can offer the conversation right now,” Ali said. “That [connection] is necessary to keep going, and there's no choice but to keep going forward.”
Correction: An earlier version attributed a verse to Ali that was actually delivered by guest rapper Sa-Roc. Alive regrets the error.