Some artists can be fully appreciated through their recorded output: Illmatic and The College Dropout give listeners a pretty good indication of what Nas and Kanye West are all about. Then there are rappers like Brother Ali, whose recorded output constitutes a poor substitute for his galvanizing live shows. Brother Ali concedes as much on The Undisputed Truth, when he acknowledges that he does his best rapping outside the vocal booth. Onstage, the hulking Muslim albino exudes an electrifying vibe that's half old-school God MC, half charismatic cult leader.
Consequently, his label, Rhymesayers, has faced a challenge in trying to capture the energy and excitement of his live performances on his studio albums. On the first few tracks of Undisputed Truth, it appears Ali and producer Ant have finally succeeded. The album-opening "Whatcha' Got" hits with the visceral force of a Just Blaze banger, while "Lookin' At Me Sideways" keeps the momentum going strong.
Truth eventually slows down a bit and flirts with heavy-handed sermonizing on "Uncle Sam Goddamn," which is far more artful and compelling than its groan-inducing "Welcome to the United Snakes / Land of the thief, home of the slave" chorus would suggest. But he rebounds with a closing three-song story-suite documenting the ugly dissolution of his marriage (the incongruously peppy-sounding "Walking Away"), single fatherhood ("Faheem"), and emotional rebirth (the ecstatic, R&B-leaning "Ear To Ear") with unflinching honesty and humor. Ali's unselfconscious candor engenders an intimacy between artist and fan that makes each new album feel like a letter from an old friend. After the intense emotional journey that is The Undisputed Truth, it's good to know that the big guy's going to be just fine.