Brother Ali commands the stage like a political figure, only one who's less concerned with appearance and more concerned with the impact of his speech. In the nihilistic rap world of uncountable monies, untraceable guns and impregnable bitches, Ali has remained a lyricist with purpose, whether it's political, social or personal. On this night, the rapper captured the audience with his passion for constant progression. During "Truth Is," fists eagerly raised across the room militantly and shouts of "More!" presided over any other sound. The crowd refused to be satisfied with mediocrity, so it was a good thing Brother Ali and friends brought the fire.
Ali has a remarkable presence that is composed and venerable yet friendly and approachable. He's humble but still utterly confident and self-assured, which reflects in his powerfully uplifting lyrics. His delivery is almost like a pastor's sermon: fiery, impassioned and with a soulful voice that hangs on his most important words, but amazingly, he rarely sounds preachy or condescending. His passion for hip-hop is palpable, "The music is still alive," he says, "because it's making us alive."
And that's really what Brother Ali seems to want -- to enliven people, to make them question themselves, but still allow them to love themselves, to perpetually push into spaces of uncertainty and grey area, because that's where life really occurs. In "American Mourning," Ali flips the traditional American notion of what a terrorist is. To live, self-examination is a necessity: In "Freedom Ain't Free," Ali says, "I kill the devil wherever he resides/Even if he hiding in me, he's got to die."
We recently posted a list of rap's best storytellers that didn't include Brother Ali, but Ali made his case with a moving a capella rendition of "Stop the Press." He also performed "Good Lord," a tribute to his Muslim faith with verses that each ended, "Chapelle bust funnies/Mos Def bust rhymes/Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time." And, yes, Brother Ali performed the requisite "Forest Whitaker" and "Uncle Sam Goddamn," too. For an encore, Ali brought out the ReMINDers to perform a couple of songs with him before asking the audience to join him in a real and heartfealt, "Peace," to close the show.
On a bill that also featured Danny Brown, about as odd a pairing with Brother Ali as you're going to find -- while Ali emanates respect and poise, Danny Brown exudes a ratchet sort of sexually that aims to unrest -- Prof performed between the two and ultimately served as a stylistic bridge of sorts: Prof has worked with Brother Ali and Atmostphere but also with swag rappers like Riff Raff -- he raps with the sensibility and composure of the former and the humor and irreverence of the latter, all the while sporting remarkable flow that operates anywhere from slow and sung to rapid-fire spitting. Though he wasn't the headliner at this show, Prof by far got the most enthusiastic response of any artist, sitting back during large portions of the songs and getting word-for-word recitation by dozens in the crowd.
Prof called the show "a special moment" that he'll remember forever, likening Denver's enthusiasm to that of Seattle and Minneapolis, his hometown. His appreciation for the Denver crowd was genuine and sustained; near the end of his show, he offered his new album for free to anybody who took the time to come meet him after the show -- that's right, he was actually trying to persuade the audience to come see him. What a concept.
The surreal, vulgar aura of Danny Brown is intoxicating, and the dude can pack as much catharsis into a single word as anybody. Plus, he's got an intangible star quality that he's still only learning to unpack. Brown's debut Fool's Gold album, XXX, one of 2011's best albums and the one that launched his career to the national level also left a lot of room for improvement in terms of consumability. As naturally magnetic a personality as Brown has, he should have no trouble connecting with an eager audience, a fact that he reinforced with his performance at Cervantes:
Live, Brown's tongue extends after a nasty rhyme like Jordan's did during a vicious dunk. His eyes squint as if he were taking hits from a powerful bong. He snarls like there is a foul and odious scent crossing the stage. During "Blunt After Blunt," his voice ranges from an ODB bark to an oompah-loompah-esque squeal as he begs with the audience his favorite rhetorical question, "Can I smoke?" The lights on the stage frame like a camera or an old cartoon the thousand faces of Danny Brown. Alive with enthusiasm, the personality in his facial expressions capture the hunger in his delivery and the attitude of his lyrics. Hopefully Brown can replicate his live charisma on his upcoming album, Old.
Recently, Brown has ventured into some more rhythm and bass-fueled dance music, a transition which suits his Adderall-fueled intensity and which he had shown a penchant for on XXX. At Cervantes', Brown got into his grimey, electric collaborations with predominantly non-hip-hop producers Darq E Freaker, A-Trak and Evil Nine, "Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)," "Piss Test" and "Black Brad Pitt," all to rousing response. This may be the avenue through which Danny Brown reaches even wider audiences. Brown had his audience completely under his influence during his set. Like an EDM artist, he had moments during certain songs where the beat would drop or crank up, and he would be right there with the energy to carry the show to another level.
Personal Bias: In my personal, biased mind, "Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)" was the best song of 2012.
Random Note: The crowd was so thick, sweat was literally dripping from the ceiling.
By the Way: Brother Ali doesn't smoke weed, and it apparently was fucking his voice up.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.