In boxing, fighters whose skin opens up easily are known as bleeders. Minneapolis albino rapper Brother Ali doesn't box—he's just such a puncher vocally that he comes on as one.
(When he was portrayed as a slugger in the ring on the cover of 2004's Champion EP, no one raised an eyebrow.) And while Ali can be as jaunty as any MC around—see "Forest Whitaker," from 2003's Shadows on the Sun, which revolves around the hook line "You ain't got to love me"—lyrically he is, yes, a bleeder. His last album, 2007's The Undisputed Truth, bore the scars of an ugly breakup with his first wife, the mother of his eldest son; as he acknowledges on "Fresh Air," from the new Us (Rhymesayers), "Not two years ago, I was homeless/I mean, crashing on the couches of my homies."
Not these days. Ali has remarried, bought a house, and made his most confident album yet, in terms of its creator's mindset. The lyrics on Us focus heavily on the power of positive thinking: Even the snarling "Best @ It" (which features verses from Freeway and Joell Ortiz) makes sure to note that Ali "truly can't thank the fans enough for what they do for me." He mentions his good fortune so much, it actually becomes kind of annoying, as is often the case with people on the brink who catch (or make) a windfall. Nevertheless, the refrain of "Fresh Air" goes, "I love the life I live/My laughter and my tears," and clearly for Ali, the one is as important as the other.
Still, a line as blunt as "My son's grandmother quit freebasing" raises eyebrows, even preceding a lyric about how despite the fallout with her daughter—Ali's kid's mom, who's earned an eight-year jail sentence, as Ali gloats about, a little queasily—they still consider each other kin. Does she approve of the line?
"I'm really close with her, and she wears that [fact] as a badge of honor, as well she should," says Ali as he prepares to board a van leaving Minneapolis with his touring crew. "I double-checked with her, and she was excited, elated. That's been my rule in the past: I don't put other people's business in songs, just my own. But that's a major accomplishment. Everybody knows that about her from now."
For all that introspection, though, Us finds Ali looking outside himself a lot more than usual. Several cuts are explicit character studies. The three verses of "Tight Rope" concern, in order, a Somalian immigrant in Minneapolis (which has a sizeable Somalian community), a child of divorce, and—a surprise even for indie-rap—a closeted gay teenager. "Baby Girl" is about an adult woman dealing with the aftermath of being molested (Ali rhymes as her empathetic boyfriend). "The Travelers" is an earnest—maybe too earnest—depiction of slavery.
The most surprising thing here—and in some ways the strongest—is "House Keys," whose protagonist takes a smaller apartment with his family to save money only to have his old unit infested by disruptive drug dealers. So he robs them with his spare key. That's it: no regret, no sense of whether the dealers ever figure it out. Is this something Ali might pick back up at some future point?
"Nah," he says. "They didn't find out. It's a true story, and they didn't find out. I wasn't the one who actually did that. Actually, my friend's wife pulled off that little caper. That's a completely true story, and I wanted to show a slice of life. If you're working-poor, you get up and go to your job in the morning, but sometimes you get up a little side hustle. You step into the life for a week and you see a section of the wild shit that can happen."
Musically, Ali and Rhymesayers in-house producer Ant tried to hear things a little differently as well. "It's completely live," says Ali of the music. "There's no samples at all. That was the plan going in. What we decided to do on this album is pull things together that aren't used to being next to each other: bringing in xylophones with synth bass and 808 drums, or banjos and vocoder, things that don't normally go together. When you put them all together, you realize it's all music and all comes from the same place inside of a person."