Music

Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth

Gentry Boeckel
BROTHER ALI [Photo: Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT]

The Twin Cities’ earnest, Muslim, albino rapper is back with his long-awaited follow-up to the critically acclaimed Shadows on the Sun, and he brought some baggage with him.


Brother Ali

The Undisputed Truth

Label: Rhymesayers
US Release Date: 2007-04-10
UK Release Date: 2007-04-16
Amazon
iTunes

A strange thing happened in January on the Twin Cities’ Radio One-owned hip-hop/R&B station, B96. Popular radio personality Peter Parker played “Truth Is”, the lead single from Brother Ali’s latest record, The Undisputed Truth, in a head-to-head call-in competition, pitting the track against various popular rap singles. “Truth Is” won over and over again. The radio station was shocked that an artist like Ali, on Minneapolis’ local Rhymesayers record label, could compete, even almost unanimously beat, their general radio-rap fare. Peter Parker commented in an interview with CertifiedHipHop that his choice of putting Ali against the station’s mainstream rap was a conscious decision to “show the people of Minnesota I respect what they have created and prove to the heads at the station people feel the Rhymesayers Movement like crazy world wide.”

Lets get it right out in the open. I’m biased. I’m from Minneapolis, the adopted home of Ali. Despite what you may have heard (or maybe, more likely, what you haven’t heard), we take our hip-hop seriously. We have to, because nobody else does. Midwest, but specifically Minneapolis/Twin Cities hip-hop is often derided for being watered-down emo-rap for the white suburbans. Slug of Atmosphere even joked about how strange it was that Ali met his African-American wife at one of his shows: “Which is pretty amazing, ‘cause it’s an Atmosphere show, so she’s like one of three black people.” There’s no question that local hip-hop shows here are almost entirely white. Ali, a self-identified African-American, but racially white and albino, has personally wrestled with his own ethnic make up, but also with his fans: “One of the hardest things we’re dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs,” he told The Village Voice in September of ‘06. “They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from black people, but [their fans] don’t want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it’s the white MCs who created the styles they like.”

Ali found acceptance in the world of hip-hop, and also found inspiration from those old-school originators. Throughout his career, Ali has never shied away from declaring his debt to his idols like KRS-One and Melle Mel, nor how much he wants to be a leader in the next generation of successful, earnest rappers. The KRS influence is glaring. The beats Ali chooses, his style, and his politics are all influenced by Ali’s desire to use hip-hop to say something meaningful.

Hip-hop was an outlet for the often ostracized Ali, who apart from being albino was slightly overweight, clumsy, and legally blind. It’s a success story that accompanies every mention of Ali: the kid from society’s fringe saved by hip-hop. It’s such an oft-repeated theme because there aren’t many stories like that anymore. Today, few artists are “saved” by hip-hop in a truly physical and emotional way. Most see hip-hop as a way of escaping their situation, but for Ali, hip-hop was more about gaining acceptance in a cloistered scene than getting the mansion on the hill. In the liner notes to The Undisputed Truth, a variety of friends and artists comment on the album’s tracks. Nearly every comment mentions the hurdles Ali has had to deal with. At one point on the supplemental DVD that accompanies the album, producer Ant says to Ali, in response to a story he told about getting jumped by some rival rappers, “If you haven’t got your ass whooped trying to accomplish hip-hop then you really ain’t hip-hop.” It’s this sort of martyrdom complex that Ali thrives on -- the struggle gives him strength. And on The Undisputed Truth he has a lot of material to work with. The past couple of years saw Ali, a devout Muslim, going through a messy divorce and custody battle for his son Faheem. “I have to make songs about this shit,” Ali says, and for the most of the record, in his rough, demanding voice, he does just that.

Ali gets his rap ego-trip out of the way early on album opener “Whatcha Got”, where he lets himself brag a little and take shots at other rap artists. “Listen Up” is a stale attempt at rehashing Golden Age steelo, complete with Prince Whipper Whip of the Fantastic Romantic 5 MCs.

With this record, it’s nice to see Ant, who almost exclusively produces for Rhymesayers artists, and who is often criticized for his repetitive production (mostly by people who haven’t heard his amazing work on the Felt 2 project with Slug and Murs), branching out into hints of reggae and jazz-rock. The last half of the album showcases Ant’s more experimental side. “Here” is little more than a ghostly vocal sample and syncopated piano line over a drum break, which Ali uses to drape his imagery-laden lyrics about foolishly opening himself up to a certain woman: “And I want you to know / Only invited you cause I ain’t thought you would show”, he raps. “Letter from the Government” is Ali’s Public Enemy homage, and “Uncle Sam Goddamn” his own letter to the “United Snakes / Land of the thief / Home of the slave”.

But it’s the last three tracks that most explicitly deal with Ali’s divorce and custody battle. On “Walking Away”, Ali directly addresses his divorce in pretty harsh terms, rapping to his ex, “I don’t love you I don’t think I ever did / And if you hadn’t tried to kill me I’d have stayed for the kid”. “Faheem” is a heartfelt ode to his son that is nevertheless bogged down with some awkward lines about cleaning mouse droppings out of his son’s toys and trite fatherly-love hyperbole. But of course, in the end, Ali comes to the conclusion that he is happy. “Ear to Ear” is his triumphant album closer, with Ali bragging about leaving his ex-wife but keeping his son. It’s maybe the first rap song where an artist boasts about winning a custody battle. It’s not a club record, and Ali wouldn’t have it any other way.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.