The insistent intelligence of Baltimore club remains the music’s rhythmic foundation, as does Ali’s gift for speedy, declamatory rap. Also still there is a polymath’s thematic interest in stretching the limits of genres, be they of music or politics or identity.
What’s new is the sense of space in the songs and a comfort level with a variety of vocal performances. Ali reveals the subdued and vulnerable, witty and celebratory registers of their voice, and you get the suspicion that as boundary breaking as their music has been, the creative river of ideas that informs their art ain’t just wide, it’s deep.
Put into a single word, this evolution in sound is about one thing: confidence. “I think a lot of my past albums or just my energy in general has been that of the underdog, the very super-marginalized music artist who is trying to do it independently, and it’s hard,” Ali says during a recent interview. “I had to realize that that is a defeatist place to stay in as a music artist and individual in general. I think people who exist in that underdog realm can get lost in that narrative. I had to realize that I am thriving.”
Cases in point: They’ve released four albums, EPs and mixtapes independently. They’ve toured the country and Europe. They’ve started and curated Kahlon, one of the most diverse dance parties in the city. They created, produced and hosted drumBOOTY, a podcast that gives underrecognized black artists, writers and thinkers a platform to tell their stories. They’re black, queer and born, raised and based in Baltimore, a city that doesn’t have the music business infrastructure of Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York. And they’ve done it all without being on a record label or having a manager.
Thinking about all that “made me realize that to be super disenfranchised and able to do the things I’ve done, that’s actually impressive,” Ali says. “It’s impressive that I’ve made this much noise.”
“FIYAH!!” expands the range of that noise with Ali’s most immediately dizzying album to date. Lead-off track “F.U.F.M” (read: eff you, eff me) is both taunt and tease, a club beat’s chest pound and vocal chants warped into an ambient loop and peppered with smoking saxophone runs, leading up to the Ali announcing, “I’m what you want, what you really want.”
Ali finds a sing-song rap tempo in “DaWon,” bobbing atop a rapturous groove that’s equal parts boom-bap and hypnotic Sun Ra rhythms. “Chastity” is straight-up futuristic R&B. And the quartet of songs in the album’s front—”Spiraling,” “Gotta Get It,” “No, I Ain’t Doin Dat” and “Free Body”—feature some of the most adventurously catchy melodies Ali’s ever laid down.
While pop charts probably aren’t ready for Ali just yet, anybody who messes with Flying Lotus, KC Ortiz, Le1f and Shabazz Palaces, or even the collage jazz of Makaya McCraven and Björk’s big-eared experiments, will most certainly find their ears-brain-ass connection more than satisfied.
“FIYAH!!” gets its name from the 1926 African-American literary magazine “Fire!!” founded by Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas and others during the Harlem Renaissance. Though only one issue was published, its still-radical content—with art and writing exploring sexuality and colorism, and a critical look at what would later be called respectability politics—struck Ali as being still relevant today.
“I was so shocked to see it was written in the 1920s because it’s so buck,” they say. “It was so ahead of its time, so blunt and radical and so left. I feel the same energy, the same pushing against the margins that we are doing today as marginalized people. It had all these beautiful gay and lesbian writers. We always think what we’re doing is so new and so fresh, but some of this same energy has been there for a long time. I wanted to create an album that felt like what I felt like reading the magazine.”
To get there, Ali tapped into the live band they’ve been performing with for about two years. Ali toured heavily after releasing “Mongo” in 2016, and after touring solo for a minute, they wanted to bring a more dynamic energy to their live shows. In the process, they discovered new minds to bounce song ideas off of onstage, where moments of instrumental and vocal improv become seeds for new melodies, choruses and entire songs. That band—saxophonist Sarah M. Hughes, keyboardist Troy Long, drummer Josh Stokes—and a few other session musicians joined Ali in the studio to record “FIYAH!!,” the first time Ali worked with other musicians on a record.
The entire process “made me think differently about how I make music and helped me gauge who I am as a music artist,” Ali says of performing and recording with a band. “It brings me back to places where I fell in love with music performance and the power of the songs, which is the black church. And that’s what it feels like when I perform with the band. It feels like church.”
Ali didn’t start making music until they were 21, releasing “Invictos,” in 2012. “I had to spend seven years to find my sound, my voice, my aesthetic, and it got me to this place where I’m producing all my own music and working with instrumentalists and now I really know how I should approach it,” Ali says. “And right now I’m stepping into who I am as a music artist. I feel like I’m just now beginning my music career for real.”
Abdu Ali plays an album release show April 26 at the Ottobar with Jeron White & Polarity and a DJ set from True Laurels.
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