Activist battle emcee Brother Ali has been a cornerstone of the Rhymesayers artist roster for more than a decade. His seventh long-player, Secrets & Escapes, is a raw and real collaboration between Ali and producer Evidence. It was cut in three jam sessions at a makeshift garage studio in Venice, California. While Brother Ali rapped from the ether without regard for finished songs, Evidence chopped up records and beats on a vintage, ramshackle sampler, then processed them via a two-track compressor so they couldn't be mixed or re-arranged.
These 11 cuts remain on the fringes of Brother Ali's trademark singalong anthems. That said, this rough-and-tumble set proves his musical worth in ways we haven't previously encountered, let alone calculated. The rhymes come cracking out of the gate; Ali takes on themes of faith, family, the presence of music in his life, and the twin follies of ambition and vanity. In "Father Figures" he nakedly states, "It's hard to feel at home in the body my trauma lives in/Self-hatred is still my opposition…." before iterating a manifesto of humility and spiritual and moral conviction before switching gears to relate a critical narrative about the FBI interrogating him about his international travel. "Abu Enzo," with its Oliver Nelson-esque jazzy intro, gets dissonant and spooky as Ali talks about where he comes from, while “Situated” includes a guest spot from Pharoahe Monch as the pair deliver battle bars over a souled-out sample as Evidence brings the boom bap. "Red," a duet with Evidence, is framed with suspenseful jazz flute, Eastern drones, Rhodes piano, and a nocturnal, paranoid beat that propels the pair deep into choppy lyrical flows. The title cut commences with a confession: "All my deepest, darkest secrets and escapes/Are keepin' me awake/Tryin' to see me break.…" with a shuffling beat, a cascading female background vocal, and shifting guitars and basslines. Talib Kweli joins Brother Ali on the slamming "De La Kufi," as squalling horns, organ, and beats swirl around the pair as they exchange and impart knowledge and wisdom both streetwise and spiritual. "The Idhin" imparts Islamic wisdom. Ali makes the best of his life's chances and mistakes as he attempts to build a righteous life from scratch. It's framed by brooding industrial sounds, out jazz, and brittle beats: "I scribe a sentence that defying all your laws and limits/I don't feed the machine, I feed human beings/Don't perform for the form, but what it truly means…I'm at my best when I can disappear/The only time that I show up is when I'm insincere…." Closer "They Shot Ricky" is articulated through Evidence's soundscape from sampled cosmic soul flavors (think early Soul Assassins) and Pharoah Sanders' elevating spiritual jazz, with Brother Ali delivering an exhortation to personal revelation before freeing his beat poet's imagination. Ultimately, Secrets & Escapes is an immediate, back-to-basics, stripped down, action-packed, and soulful set from two master talents who sought to recapture what made them fall in love with hip-hop in the first place. Killer.