After gushing, "Nobody makes me feel the way she makes me," on "My Gurl," Ali turns jerking and unrepentant ("all those girls I hurt w/ my lies... / the trust I abused / actin' a fool / doin what I do / I thought u knew") on "Sorry" before immediately getting bulldoggish toward players. "Hey man I see how you treat your lady and it ain't right," he scolds on "1Day," completing a dizzying three-song trip to the extremes of the male-female dynamic.
Ali reconciles all the style-shifting by toeing a certain moralistic line. Creeped out by Akon's borderline pedophilia and R-Kelly's water sports, the central tension of his work is avoiding gratuitous sexuality while still being sensual. In this he invokes Musiq Soulchild, as much for the Def Jam artist's Muslim upbringing as his neo-soul vibe. For those who don't know Soulchild's work ("around here, that's pretty much everyone"), Ali says he's Justin Timberlake without the dancing. Or the freak flag and androgynous falsetto, to be fair. No, Ali's probably closest to Ne-Yo for his ability to oscillate between nice guy and bad boy without getting overly sappy or needlessly creepy.
Though Ali works freely within those bounds, he sometimes needs convincing. "Tell Me," the album's standout track, was more the result of peer-pressure than artistic inspiration. "Everyone is saying,' you gotta have a club hit, you gotta have a club hit!" says Ali. "I kinda hate it, but I put it in," he says, recoiling at the principle but still understanding what the track required. It meant going up-tempo and bass heavy. It meant having a rapper.
With much of the area's hip-hop scene mired in the ghetto naturalism of mid-'90s West Coast hip-hop, though, pickings for the kind of track Jamal envisioned were slim. Ultimately, Ali tapped Young Jinx, a Boston-born rapper who dons personas as easily as Ali. One minute he's re-envisioning classic verses from Method Man and Slick Rick on "What's My Name." The next, he's a blunted, conflicted murderer. For "Tell Me," Jinx spits sexed-up braggadocio (' I'm a thug who love to fuh / We'll make a tape so sick they'll forget who R.Kells was"), playing the foil to Ali's slow, sensitive groove.
"He's the next Jay-Z," says Ali. That remains to be seen, but Jinx's talents are evident.
So are Ali's. Intuitive beatmakers and songwriters are hard to come by. Someone who understands what people are looking for in a singer and isn't above giving it to them is rarer still.
Jamal Ali with Adrian McKinnon, Dallas P and Frijea at Caterina Winery on Saturday, May 19 at 8 pm. $5. Call 328-5069.