Emotionally complex but bristling with prickly bluster, Us makes Brother Ali sound at times like he’s revealing more than he means to, the pairing of internal conflicts with “I’m a bad motherfucker” posturing functioning as cause-and-effect dialogue. One seems to grow out of the other, roiling pain that results in vain, callow self-affirmations. It’s an interesting dynamic, one that gives added depth to an album that’s already sufficiently intricate. If the connection weren’t so visible, this kind of bragging might seem out of place for Ali, a devout Muslim with an established social conscience.
After drawing fire (and press) for 2007’s “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” he offers nothing similarly controversial here, providing less direct politics than character sketches, the aforementioned bombast, and a hackneyed theme of unity. These narratives have two focuses: some illuminate, creating fairly trenchant pictures of fringe characters or detailing Ali’s own struggles; others, like “House Keys,” in which he talks about robbing the drug dealers living in his former apartment, and “Bad Mufucker Part II,” where his tough-guy reputation halts a brawl in its tracks, are flatly self-aggrandizing. In this sense, the album represents an endless process of construction and demolition. The smart tracks build up the complexity of Ali’s persona, while the dumb ones diminish it. The juxtaposition of these two different modes creates a fuller exposition than what you’ll find on most hip-hop albums. Usually there’s all the bluster and none of the pain, the cause of the artist’s booming insecurity left unexplained.
None of this would be worth much were it not backed by uniformly strong beats, provided across the board by Ant from the group Atmosphere, and insistently clever rhymes. A tendency to fall into ruts, rolling out unbroken strings of words with little change in meter, is a minor problem, one of many that prevents Ali from being a truly great MC. His character is one pitted with small, starkly visible holes, a dual fascination with weakness and strength that makes for an intriguingly flawed persona.