Amir Sulaiman: Like a Thief in the Night

Barry Lenser

Amir Sulaiman is socially aware, yes, but that doesn’t make him or his music cool, compelling, or the least bit exciting.

Amir Sulaiman

Like a Thief in the Night

Label: Uprising
US Release Date: 2007-05-15
UK Release Date: 2007-06-04

On his fourth album, Like a Thief in the Night, Oakland-based Amir Sulaiman remains a spoken word-smith, true to form. This is despite the presence of nominally hip-hop architecture. The once freestyler-turned-impassioned-poet trades in markedly political and social commentary, all very intelligible and heated, but not conducive to exciting beat-craft. Or, at least, Sulaiman chooses it not to be. The rhythms and sonic structures of Thief are static, under-dressed, and wearily shaded in darkness – more a formality than an enabler of his incensed state-of-the-union. This design is Sulaiman’s crucial miscalculation. He wants the bite, bluster, and martyr’s bravado of his language to aurally dominate, not the beats. Thief’s end effect should be that of a spoken-word jamboree, and it is. But, in all its drummed-up sanctimony, the man emerges as uncompelling as the music.

As a practicing Muslim in post 9-11 America, Sulaiman comes equipped with a non-majority, non-WASP angle on all the news that’s fit to lament. His outcry, indubitably bolstered by being included on a “no-fly” list in 2004, fails though on its potential for unique engagement. In tone and sense of proportion, the politics of Thief match those of petulant college demonstrators. On the incongruously titled “I Love You”, a rampaging Sulaiman employs “Patriot Act”, “Palestine”, and “JFK” as verbs signifying the government’s meting out of injustices. Heavy-handedness only trivializes the targeted ills. He even glibly boasts “We are the revolution” on the track of the same name. This rallying assertion, once a vessel of luster and romantic naiveté, has since fossilized. Partisan persuasions aside, the haymakers are as trite as they are tired, and the sloganeering, just burnt-out relics. Like a Thief in the Night quickly sheds its veneer of originality and devolves into an overstated, copy-and-paste collage of Howard Zinn and Chuck D.

This excessive commitment to sermonizing and devaluation of sonics makes for haphazard terrain. Only artists with a preternaturally dynamic flow – Hove, ‘Lil Wayne, even Kanye – could overcome these twin missteps. Sulaiman badly under-qualifies and even admits to such a non-emphasis. On “When I Die”, which Mos Def feloniously steals, he instructs, “You can ignore the flow / Just hold onto the soul”. The latter is out to lunch, just an enticing illusion, while the former is an unpalatable blend of abrasiveness, religiosity, and grasping affection. Sulaiman’s vox is simply unnatural to hip-hop’s theatricality, too breathless and dour to find the balance by which master practitioners thrive. Serious subjects, even those confessionally motivated, need not breed joy-less listens, like this one. With last year’s beloved Hell Hath No Fury, Clipse crafted a decidedly dark work. Street decadence rarely has come so fateful and plight-riddled. It still was a blast to partake of, owing in large measure to the duo’s sly vocal flexings. Not long after, Nas even proclaimed the passing of this genre. For an ostensible funeral, Hip-Hop is Dead was a thrill ride – bathed in sinister hues, yes, but also bursting with colorful flows.

Sulaiman delivers on his album’s titular murkiness and doom, and does so gloomily, almost oppressively. Thundering indignation is present, though not compellingly channeled. Thief’s bluntness and its melody-immune packaging leaves no room for vitality, even less for thrills. The chorus of “Head To the Sky” is perhaps the most uninviting stretch, a dual layer of vocals all marshalling and muffled with didactic rage. Awareness: raised, sure. Fighting spirit: still dormant. The stabs at graceful reflection, like “How Beautiful Are You” and “Make It Through” are the intended counterpoints, yet don’t display proper range. Limp and over-emoting, they’re just more overt spoken-word pieces, the preferred medium.

The damage assessment of Thief is indeed dire. The beats: bereft of invention, life, and snappy pop appeal. The subject matter: Sulaiman’s po’ed indictment of America under Bush, sentiments always available at Daily Kos and Democracy Now! The delivery: frothily worked up and, worst of all, absolutely no fun. A quick, misplaced “Bitch I’m trill” would’ve been an effervescent slice of heaven. But no: Thief is all dogged outrage, consumed only with hearing and echoing itself, drearily again and again. To his credit, Sulaiman is on fire for justice, equality, maybe even the audacity of spoken-word poetry. These passions, transmitted as they are, flat-out bore on the order of monastic piety and can’t obscure the absence of sound hip-hop fundamentals.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.