Brother Ali

Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

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Using Old Glory as a prayer rug on your album cover is certain to drive some people away, and with one quarter of the guest list here occupied by Dr. Cornell West (author of Race Matters and no friend to "the Establishment") underground rapper Brother Ali's 2012 effort certainly looks like a "target audience" album. "Preaching to the converted" would be the more dismissive way to put it, but an objective ear can hear that there's an unexpected amount of beauty, hope, and grace in Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, especially when West is in the building. The duo's opening "Letter to My Countrymen" is a soft and sound uplift, with jazzy mallets hitting warm vibes while Ali embraces it all, "Beautiful ideals and amazing flaws," and pledges "I wanna make this country what it says it is," a goal he maintains throughout the album. West's bit on the track is no lecture, but a warmer thing, somewhere between a lullaby and a prayer. "Only Life I Know" professes soulful love for the U.S. of A. and its flaws, with funky beats, gospel shouts, and tales of those tattooed girls on the street corner, but as Ali watches the rents go up and living conditions decline, the anger grows. "Mourning in America" is mostly venom and blood-spattered speakers, as the system eats its innocent victims to a boom-bap beat, while the gritty, guitar-driven "Gather Round" is like Ali fronting Rage Against the Machine -- and another interesting choice from the album's producer, Jake One. Later, it’s the deep blues as "Work Everyday" hands out woefully small paychecks, and then there's a wondrous cross of Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye for the personal evolution number called "Namesake," which relates Muhammad Ali on the U.S. Olympic team to Brother Ali's own proud journey from Christian to Muslim. Layered viewpoints, bittersweet situations, and complicated anger flow out of this articulate effort, but the sweet trick of the album is how approachable it is, living up to its title with equal shares of Mourning and Dreaming.

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