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Review: Brother Ali – Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color

A musical foothold for progress in a world of blinding distraction and injustice.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud


Sometimes soul searching finds you. Inspired by his life-changing first trip to Mecca, the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and the worldwide Occupy movements, Brother Ali has returned with a rejuvenated purpose and voice on his new album Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color.

Brother Ali's pilgrimage to Mecca came amidst the deepest and most difficult struggles of the Rhymesayers flowmaster's life; between the death of his father and that of his beloved friend Michael "Eyedea" Larsen, as well as the boiling point of unrest around the world last year and the flourishing uprising of the worldwide Occupy movements, Ali found himself at an unexpected crossroads that saw his most trusted connections either away on commitments or gone for good. As such a moment in time is bound to do, the man turned inward, exploring the deeper voice linking the dissonance to a larger condition in our civilization. Then he pressed record.

Ali's fifth full-length offering Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color was concocted during a two-month self-imposed exile in Seattle, alongside mega-producer Jake One (50 Cent, T.I., Wiz Khalifa). A departure from the soulful anthems and philosophical butter of his previous album Us, Mourning is a fire in the heart of darkness, an incendiary critique of America's corrosive consumerism culture and apathetic sociopolitical designs – but not without a hand on the lifeline of redemption. It's not enough to rage against the machine in 2012; people need a way out, a light at the end of these impossible corridors, this labyrinth of complication and information overload. Through the album's brightest peaks and darkest narrative valleys, Ali never loses sight of the horizon, of the dawn waiting to break on a civilization drowning in its own delusion – and he reminds us that the only way to get there is to run towards it together.

Aided by the legendary author/ professor Dr. Cornel West, Southern rap icon Bun B and Def Poetry Jam poet Amir Sulaiman, Ali enters not with a roar of bomb-dropping arrival but a bright instrumentation appeal that rings an optimistic tone in line with that of the true patriotism laid out in verse, a whole-hearted devotion to rising above, "no matter how many times my heart's been smothered." Rather than the "never forget" rhetoric and regurgitated flag-wrapped sloganeering, however, Ali asks directly through "Letter To My Countrymen" whether it makes any sense to call ourselves the greatest nation in the world, a post-racial bliss point that takes care of its own and lifts up the struggling, when the evidence to the contrary is obliterating. But don't mistake that for damnation –  it's a soft-spoken reminder of reality from a place of love. To leap forward from any place, one must know the reality of their footing.

“What does it mean to be American?" he asks. "I think the struggle to be free is our inheritance/ And if we say it how it really is, we know our lily skin still give us privilege/ advantages given to the few that are built into the roots of our biggest institutions…. do I fight in the movement, or think I'm entitled to it?”

The track ends with a reaffirmation from Dr. Cornel West, who diagnoses Americana 2012 with an individual optimist slant: “You don’t wanna be just well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference. You wanna be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world.”

Poverty is laid raw on "Only Life I Know," and with 46.2 million Americans falling below the line of the impoverished in the most recent numbers, this one should hit home across the board. The horn-punch thrust and snare snap frames the devastating urgency present in the lyrical desperation of struggling Americana – one reminder among many that Jake One provides the inimitable ride in which our narrator flows.

Ali then turns the focus inward in the autobiographical "Stop The Press," a moving relay of the past few years in the man's struggles. It brings us up to date on his fight for balance in life, and even slights 2009's remarkably powerful Us album as he confesses to being off his game a bit.

The album title's first half — the Mourning half — is a callback to Ronald Reagan's famous "Morning in America" campaign ad ("That's the one that started this whole neo-con thing we got going on"), and it's a dose of synchronicity at a time when the red half the nation's political trumpeters lionize Reagan as the embodiment of their modern ideas of leadership and conservatism – to which the late president would've seemed like a hard progressive leftist.

Nevertheless, the title track is a dark shift indicator, aggression taking the front seat as frustration and anguish are laid out with lyrical bombs and bloodshed. Is this the same man who flowed like a zen prophet of love just two years ago? Yes, it is. And this dynamic is precisely what makes Brother Ali among Hip-Hop's most valuable treasures; his street-preacher wisdom both embraces and transcends the feel-good flow as well as the doom & gloom, a full spectrum of reality in the narrated struggles of our existence.

Electric guitar and compressed claps deliver the furious "Gather Round," a Pharoahe Monch edge as the Bible and Quran's higher callings are held high above those who trumpet their authority but practice so little of the text they wave. By contrast, the magnetic "Work Everyday" outlines -with a slight Sean Carter flare to the flow – the modern struggle on the slippery slope of stagnant wages and skyrocketing living costs in a corporatist outsourcing business paradigm.

Named for the sunrise Islamic prayer, "Fajr" takes the tale of righteousness and piously serving a greater good and spins it into the era of spiritual disconnect and Constitution-stripping authoritative grip we exist in, reminding of the essential importance of keeping "the wolves off the sheep". Regardless of personal perspective on Islam, imagine for a moment what kind of consciousness American society would be rooted in if all of us took time, five times a day, to stop and spend a moment in silent thought/energy focus, reminding ourselves what our purpose is, what our greater goals and values are. Do you think reality TV culture would rule the day? Do you truly believe that our collective culture could embrace apathetic individualism as we currently do while our friends, neighbors and loved ones suffer in floundering decline? In the Land Of The Free, it takes those truly brave to not only remind themselves – and others – daily of the responsibility we have to lift each other up, but to live it.

So many on both sides of the consumer aisle, both artist and fan alike are short-sighted in their examination of what it means to rise above cynical shit talking and actually plant seeds of inspiration, information and educated conversational architecture to help create the world most only gripe that we're not living in. With Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, Brother Ali stands tall with a smoke-free mirror, reflecting the cancerous lesions on the collective herd mind and offering substantive ideas on compassion, love and community support through sometimes searing and often endearing observations on race, the catalyst for the Occupy movement, the hypocrisy of war and general social oppression in America.

Welcome to the Mourning. Don't mistake this for an obituary of hope. A naked assessment of abandonment of ideals and potential, these 14 tracks provide a foothold for progress in a world of blinding distraction and injustice.

Pick up the album at Fifth Element.