Our recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
When Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his masterful work in the 2016 film Moonlight, people began to learn about his nature as a true renaissance man. The Oakland native had been working as an actor in TV and film since the early ’00s, gaining acclaim for his work in Luke Cage, Treme, The Hunger Games, and House of Cards. As he did his awards’ season promotion, aspects of his previous lives slowly came to light. For example, he was an aspiring basketball star in his younger years and went to St. Mary’s college, attending the school on a basketball scholarship and played four seasons of D1 ball as a guard.
However, another of Ali’s “previous lives” went largely unreported both before and after his Oscar win. A good decade before winning an Oscar, Ali made moves as an aspiring rapper. In 2007, under the name Prince Ali, he released the album Curb Side Service through Hieroglyphics Imperium, and it was pretty damn good. Ali is clearly one of the best actors who ever had an acting career, but this album shows that if he’d opted to dedicate himself to his music career, he may have been one of the better rappers who ever acted.
Curb Side Service was actually Ali’s second album following his debut LP Corner Ensemble, released in 2006, but it’s where Ali is at the height of his music-making skill. Back then, he was known as one of the leads on the TV show The 4,400. He linked up with Hieroglyphics Imperium, and according to Tajai (of Hiero and Souls of Mischief fame) gave them an essentially completed album for the label to distribute. Though Ali is Bay Area-born and raised, Curb Side Service doesn’t sound like the clear offspring of other acclaimed Bay Area hip-hop releases. Ali spent his summers staying with his father in New York City, and there are definite NYC influences in his rhyme style and beat selection. Regardless, Curb Side Service still feels very much like a Bay Area album, from its overall sound to its lyrical references. The album’s production is a solid mix of both sampled-based material and live instrumentation from a host of local producers.
Curb Side Service covers a lot of ground during its hour length, and Ali demonstrates his versatility throughout its 20 tracks. For a good chunk of the album, Ali follows the example of Hieroglyphics homies in demonstrating his verbal dexterity. He starts off strong with the haunting “Way of the Warrior,” as he flaunts his own lyrical ability over neck-snapping drums and a sample of Bob James’ “I Feel a Song (In My Heart).” The relatively brief “Honor Path” showcases Ali’s amazing breath control, sharp cadence, and impeccable rhyme flow. Ali holds his own with three other legendary emcee heavyweights on “The Majors,” sharing the track with Casual, Planet Asia, and Keith Murray. Though all four brutalize the Skavenger produced track, Ali rises to the occasion, rapping, “Sandblast your catamaran right out the dry dock / Jack London ferry boat stops, soaking your iPod.”
Curb Side Service isn’t all lyrical braggadocio, as Ali demonstrates his verbal skills even when he’s not trying to pummel wack emcees. With “Floating Lotus,” Ali reflects on his quest for personal enlightenment and how he is inspired to see the world through “the gypsy in me, nomadic habits.” “Side Show” has to be one of the mellowest dedications to the often wild facet of Bay Area street culture, as Ali takes a smooth vibe and chime heavy track by CHIII and flexes a double-time rhyme flow over it, while describing the event and surrounding scene in minute detail.
On “Stay Chopped,” arguably the album’s best track, Ali credits his work ethic and dedication to his craft to the Bay Area where he was raised, in particular the DIY hustle mentality that pervades the area. Over live drums, bass, and keys, Ali explains that he’s “something like a God’s gift, Mosswood’s masjid / Playing on my floors because perfection is a process.” “The Soiree” is another highlight, featuring a mix of string and horn samples paired with live bass, drums, and vibes. The track, handled by the Compound 7 production team, plays as the Blaxploitation anthem to a late night fête, as he raps about triumphantly taking the stage to celebrate his musical success.
Prince Ali essentially moved on from his rapping career after Curb Side Service was released, as his acting commitments prevented him from touring to support the album. In 2008, he secured a role in the David Fincher-directed The Curse of Benjamin Button, and didn’t look back. However, hip-hop is still a big part of Ali’s life and continues to influence his acting. In 2015, he narrated Hus Kingpin’s House of Kingpin mixtape in character as Remy Danton from House of Cards. And he famously creates hip-hop based playlists to listens to in order to help him get into character for each of his acting roles. Though it’s clear Ali has found his true passion with acting, I do wonder about the career he could have built for himself if he’d decided to continue making music.