I haven’t heard an opening track as hard as Brother Ali’s “Whatcha Got” in a long, long time. The best comparison I can make, and the one get-out-of-my-way-or-I’ll-cave-your-face-in boot-stomp I keep going back to, is the intro on DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, where X talks to himself for a few seconds before a timpani “dong” sparks life while setting a tone as foreboding as death. “Whatcha Got” doesn’t store up its anticipation the same way; Ali can hardly wait for the wild organ and guitar-wails in the beat to kick in before ripping them apart, like some hungry animal smelling blood. Which is exactly what he does, detailing how he got here and why this moment is the beginning of something so much more and proving how, for four-and-a-half minutes, one man is enough. And this, of course, is the right way to start an album.
But here’s the beauty: “Whatcha Got” is something of a lark. The Undisputed Truth, Brother Ali’s second album and first in four years, is an exercise in contained reflection and determination. It hardly ever loses its cool, not in the anti-war, anti-Bush fantasy “Letter from the Government,” where Ali borrows Public Enemy’s black steel for the chorus: “I got a letter from the government/ The other day./ I opened and read it and burned that . . ./ The way that I live don’t concern that . . ./ We gonna have to settle this another way.” And not in “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” a soulful — sonically and personally — attack on U.S. history and values that rides the same bass line heard way back in Casual’s “Follow the Funk,” where Ali basically says slavery is to thank for every ounce of American power and growth, from then to now and probably forever.
Ali can do this, can take the familiar, the overly confrontational, even the trite and overdone, and make it riveting, because he has a voice that strains syllables so that the meanings of his words are made perfectly clear — you can’t escape what he’s saying — and a flow that loads and unleashes relentlessly. And he’s backed by producer Ant (of Atmosphere), whose incredible beats pay homage to old-school simplicity (“Listen Up”; the very Brand Nubian-sounding “Pedigree”) as much as they unlock breezy spirits (“Walking Away” and “Ear to Ear,” both of which touch on home-life battles), bluesy storms (“Looking at Me Sideways”; “Faheem,” a touching and wholly un-corny tribute to Ali’s son), and reggae wobbles (“Truth Is”; “Freedom Ain’t Free”). They’re a tight fit: Ant likes to experiment, and Ali’s nimble enough to keep up and make it work.
Then there’s Ali’s sense of humility, the idea that, even though he says his name should be synonymous with greatness in “Whatcha Got,” and even though he calls his album The Undisputed Truth, he won’t cop out or cry entitlement. This is a guy who’s not only willing to earn your respect, but he also wants to. He really, truly wants to.