Brother Ali is like a cool roaming uncle who occasionally surfaces with gifts and insights. So his devout nieces and nephews should jump up and down for Us — his second phenomenal disc this year, and a par release for the most important MC on either side of the commercial-underground divide.
Us leads with slow-plucked sitar funk on "The Preacher," which is named for Ali's mission to kick his gospel of "love yourself and stay connected to the world." From there, the marquee Rhymesayer begins his chronicles on "House Keys," which you could describe as the new "I Got a Story To Tell" — instead of jacking pro ballers like B.I.G., Ali clandestinely robs his coke-dealer neighbor in retaliation for the constant racket.
Like his labelmate Slug, Ali is inching away from pure memoir and toward more imaginative biographic efforts. "The Travelers" — on which he dances across driving digi-rumbles and xylophonic clumps — finds the albino humanitarian lacing narratives applicable to any humble plight, anywhere. And "Babygirl" is a vivid Stratocaster love story on which he blends romantic observation and experience.
Although the worst thing I can say about the sound is that Us often resembles Stevie Wonder fare, some tracks are too musical for strict hip-hop sensibilities. It's exciting to witness Ant's progression from beatmaker to composer, but the chorus on "Round Here" sounds like the theme song for a He-Man remake. Ponytailed, Camel-smoking Atmosphere producer does best when he sticks to his trusty keyboard stabs; "Games" is an organ orgasm, and the title-track encore demands a standing, swaying, salutatory ovation. The same goes for nearly every cut in this hip-hop opera, a rare work of rap that simultaneously inspires self-confidence and aggravation with the broken world around us.