Ali won't say so, but he's in a difficult spot. The unofficial head Lunatic's first solo CD, Heavy Starch, is about to be released on Universal Records, and the pressure -- no matter what he says -- has got to be intense. Consider what happened to his crew: Because Free City sold "only" a million-or-so copies, industry types deemed it a flop. Compared with Nelly's solo debut, Country Grammar -- which went platinum eight times and is still holding steady on the sales charts nearly two years after its release -- the St. Lunatics' achievement, however impressive by any other standards, looks pretty piddly. Platinum, sure, but piddly.
Yeah, the comparison's unfair, but remember, 21st-century corporate America is a crazy, crazy place, and nobody is safe for long when Mariah Fucking Carey can get fired for not moving enough units. Pleasing the big-label executives means proving yourself over and over and over again: The more you give them, the more they expect. Although Nelly's unprecedented success no doubt helped the Lunatics -- would they have even gone platinum had it not been for the global phenom that was Country Grammar? -- it also hurt them, in a sense, because everything they do from this point forward, individually or collectively, is likely to be measured against the Nelly yardstick.
Ali, it's safe to say, probably won't sell 8 million records. But it's not because he doesn't have the skills or the ambition. The oldest member of the St. Lunatics and, some say, the most gifted lyricist, he was the one who came up with the idea of starting the group. It's his voice -- deeper and rougher than that of his pinup compadre -- that dominates "Gimme What You Got," the Lunatics' independently released first single. In 1996 that unassuming little party track sold 7,000 copies regionally and stayed at the top of the local hip-hop charts for weeks. But despite Ali's status as group founder, the brain trust at Universal decided to break Nelly first. It's impossible to argue with their logic now, millions of dollars later, but the fact remains: It's a hard act to follow, especially when the whole rap thing was your idea to begin with.
Ali, however, refuses to whine, despite our blatant coaxing. He won't even admit to feeling under the gun. "I know it's strange to say," he says by cell phone from a hotel room in New York, where he's putting the final touches on Heavy Starch, "but it's not really a difficult position. I'm not under that much pressure, because I can only do what I can do. I'm just gonna be me, and in the longer process, it's eventually going to catch on. That's how Nelly did it."
The reference to Nelly notwithstanding, Ali sees himself filling a different niche, appealing to the more serious hip-hop heads who may shun Nelly for being too commercial and the Lunatics for being too frivolous. He knows he's not likely to cross over the way Nelly did, and he doesn't seem to mind. "I really want to fill a void for us," he explains. "People will say Nelly's pop, whatever that means, or he's popular -- so maybe he can't rhyme for real, or he's not true to hip-hop. All kinds of wild stuff comes out of people's mouths. And then you got the Lunatics: They're just there to keep the party going. So I'm here to fill that hole, like, yo, underground hip-hop or just straight old-school-rap type of thing. I wanted to open people's eyes to the fact that the Lunatics is not just one big party all the time. We love to party -- don't get me wrong -- but sometimes we do have different songs with a different substance."
The album's title is meant to underscore these differences. "It's a double play," Ali says. "It's a shout-out to St. Louis, you know, because some of us wear starch in our jeans. But it's also my topics, my issues, my tone -- it's a little bit heavier than what you usually get with the Lunatics. I'm a little more serious, and I wanted to prewarn people."
Although Heavy Starch certainly has its share of the bling-bling, bootycentric anthems that keep food on the Lunatics' table, they're tempered with a more mature, thoughtful perspective. The first single, "Boughetto," isn't just a celebration of conspicuous consumption -- although it certainly works that way, in a superficial sense. One part sociological commentary, one part "Pass the Courvoisier," "Boughetto" betrays an ironic self-awareness largely absent from the other Lunatics' work. The word itself, which Ali first heard used by fellow Lunatic Kyjuan, is a portmanteau composed of "bourgeois" and "ghetto" -- ebonics for "nouveau riche" or "parvenu," if you will, but with a less judgmental connotation.
"Once we started living boughetto," Ali explains with a self-deprecating chuckle, "that's when we really started saying it all the time. So many things are ghetto and bougie in my life right now. I've got, like, so many shoes! They're all Nikes and stuff -- it's totally ghetto. The bougie part of it is how many different styles there are -- it's crazy to have that many shoes."
Ali's interest in countering Lunatic stereotypes isn't exactly consistent -- in fact, sometimes it seems downright schizophrenic. Amid the mindless booty calls are earnest condemnations of violence; a song about a wiggling female ass (Nelly's featured on that one, duh!) follows an impassioned manifesto about spiritual truth and a satiric gospelish rave-up about a huckster preacher.
But the bright, bouncy beats -- mostly courtesy of the faithful Jay E. and his fellow hit-monger Wally Yaghnam -- more than compensate for the occasional thematic snags. Although neither is a stone-cold production genius, in the elite company of Dr. Dre, Organized Noize, Timbaland and the Neptunes, both Jay E. and Yaghnam are always solid and sometimes spectacular. The skittish gamelan sample on "I Got This" doesn't have the inventive force it might have had pre-"Get Ur Freak On," but it's still sticky as fuck and twice as nasty. With the rumbling, asphalt-cracking bass and loping dirty-South drum patterns, the sound is just right for summertime cruising. It's not especially cutting-edge, but it's crunk, and crunk's what counts when you're rolling down Natural Bridge and Kingshighway in a shiny new SUV.
In this sonic context, Ali's sporadic attempts at consciousness-raising are surprising -- and maybe a little subversive. Either that, or he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too. "Yo, kids," he explains at the beginning of one track, "whenever you hear Big Lee talkin' about a gun, I'm talking about my mouth." On "360 Degrees" he raps, "Pop you once, watch the spot leak/But right now, I'm trying to stray from that." Such disclaimers might seem disingenuous at first, crassly convenient, a way to throw in the obligatory street talk without implicating himself. Or maybe he's hiding his message in a kind of thugged-out Trojan horse, waiting for the right moment to let loose with the role-model stuff.
"The kids who really need to hear it," Ali explains, "they won't listen to you unless you say, 'Yo, pop that gun' -- oh, then they'll start listening. You got to get their attention first. Then I come up behind it and squash it with some peaceful things. I'm targeting the people who need to hear it, not kids who have a nice upbringing, both parents -- they won't get no gun no way, no matter what I say."
Whether Heavy Starch beats the formidable odds and gives Country Grammar a run for its money is, in the final analysis, not that important to Ali -- industry bean-counters be damned. He's proud of the disc, and he doesn't need to become a pop star of Nellyesque proportions to feel like a success. His audience might be smaller than Nelly's, but as long as his music reaches the people who need to hear it, Ali doesn't mind. "My project is more of a statement," he concludes with satisfaction, "more than just selling records."