Happy 15th Anniversary to Brother Ali’s second studio album Shadows On the Sun, originally released May 2, 2003.
Brother Ali Newman is a hip-hop holy man. Coming from a strong spiritual background and possessing a strong sense of social justice, he’s like something out of the Old Testament. He chronicles the plight of the less fortunate and spreads his message of salvation through acceptance. The Wisconsin born, Minneapolis-based emcee never comes across as preachy or condescending, and exudes a sense of compassion and decency. The only ones he seems to hold in contempt are those who are convinced of their own superiority when they lack the bona fides to back it up.
Much of Ali’s worldview comes from his own troubled upbringing. Forged in years of pain, he’s emerged stronger and ready to advocate for those who often lack the venues to speak on their own. He converted to Islam at a young age, and has applied its teachings to improve his life and learn to coexist with those from all walks of life.
Shadows On the Sun is Ali’s sophomore album, after the reasonably obscure Rites of Passage (2000). While he produced Rites on his own, he teams with producer Ant for Shadows. Ant is best known for his work as one half of Atmosphere, the legendary Minnesota-based group that helped bring the Rhymesayers record label into existence. Ant’s work on Shadows doesn’t just sound like leftover tracks from his sessions with Slug (the other half of Atmosphere). Ant provides Ali with his own unique, often Blues-influenced sound that fits the album’s subject matter and feel.
Ali expresses the album’s mission statement on its title track. Over a “chipmunk soul”-esque loop, he eloquently articulates his purpose as an emcee, to “rap for the ones that Johnny Cash wore black for,” channeling the spirits of the oft-ignored victims of poverty through his verses. “I rhyme for cats up in the harbor lights,” he says, “Praying they don't starve tonight, and stay positive in the face of a harder life / My chorus light the torch for those on whom the sun set / Verses meant to speak for the voiceless.”
Ali works to deliver on his promises starting from the album’s opening moments. He positions himself as the “modern urban Norman Rockwell” on “Room With a View.” Ali frames the song as his observations while sitting at the desk where he writes, looking out the window. He captures the everyday existences and the minutiae of the lives of those who live “in a location where slanging crack rock is not seen as a fucking recreation but a vocation.” Ali catalogues the lives of those driven by desperation to chase any means necessary to dull the everyday pain of living, and the horrific lengths they will go to secure the money to achieve these ends.
While Ali possesses limitless empathy for those who suffer on the city streets, he has little patience for those who don’t properly honor hip-hop culture and its forefathers. “Pay Them Back” serves as a scathing dis to these culture vultures that aren’t authentic in their love for the music. Ali sets about disciplining them like emotionally stunted children, promising to “curl ’em backwards till they faces touch they asses / Mail ’em off to Paraguay and don't insure the package / Burned your vermin asses, learned your nervous habits / In turn my current status left serpents swerving backwards.”
Though Ali excels at putting truth to words, he’s also an extremely adept lyricist, and can throw battle rhymes with the best of the emcees out there. On dancehall-tinged tracks like “Champion,” he admits to “choking players like I’m Bob Knight; choke the coaches like I’m Sprewell.” “When the Beat Comes In” lets Ali rock over the album’s sole boom-bap track, comprised of grooving guitars and string hits. Ali is in perfect form, demonstrating his lyrical dexterity with rhymes like, “Ali's a big teddy bear / ’Til they scream, ‘Stop slamming the car door, that's my fucking head in there!’ / Your teeth are everywhere / I serve your family and write about it in my journal like I'm Mister Belvedere.”
For the most part, Shadows On the Sun serves as an exhibition of Ali’s ability as an emcee, and is largely free of guest appearances. Rhymesayer O.G. and one of Ali’s mentors, Slug, appears on a pair of tracks. The first is “Blah Blah Blah,” a soul-infused battle track where the pair trade lines and stanzas, mocking emcees who talk a lot but don’t say anything. The noticeably more brief “Missing Teeth” is another excellent team up between the pair, with Ali and Slug each delivering solid 16-bar verses over a guitar and chime filled loop. Slug starts things off, warning emcees of his viciousness with lines like, “I spit shrapnel while the villagers babble / Slice deep, pull, peel, and let the skin unravel.” Meanwhile, Ali declares himself a “street magician like David Blaine with these songs / Crip-walking through your mental corridor with metal cleats on.”
Though his battle rapping skills remain excellent, Ali’s greatest strength as an artist is his storytelling ability. Much like his contemporary and friend MURS, Ali has a knack for relating unique, lived-in descriptions of slices from either his own life or creative fiction. He makes these stories relatable by not portraying himself as infallible and not always having everything work out.
Ali infuses subtle humor into these occasionally fictional stories, even when there’s a darker subtext. On “Prince Charming,” he assumes the role of a man trying to pick up a girl while they both ride the bus. He initially lays on the compliments thick, offering them with a self-deprecating charm. But as the song progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is pretty disturbed, and is taking his infatuation much too far. All the while, Ali successfully navigates the line between being funny and truly disturbing.
Ali continues to spin a unique yarn on “Dorian,” where he confronts his next-door neighbor of the same name for beating his own girlfriend and daughter on a nightly basis. After unsuccessfully trying to firmly warn him about the consequences, Ali delivers a vicious beating of his own, only to be arrested after the abused girlfriend call the police.
Brother Ali is nearly unparalleled in his ability to bring his audience into his life, sharing both the triumphs and the traumas. He journeys back to his troubled days of high school in “Win Some, Lose Some,” relating a confrontation he has with a trio of bullies. He refuses to back down from their aggression, and decides to attempt to fight all three at once. Although he takes a loss and sustains a serious beating, he explains how his tormentors can’t mentally break him, rapping, “I came to school a week later with an eye full of stitches /And I held my head higher than pictures / They looking at me like, “Yeah y’all done fucked me up / What you think that’s a thing that's gonna shut me up?” / Shit, nope, still swaggering, still battle rapping / And still not giving them the satisfaction of being mad.”
Ali gets even deeper in examining his difficult adolescence on the somber “Picket Fence.” Through the first verse, he painfully describes the loss of his innocence as a child through merciless bullying by others who mocked his appearance and upbringing. On the second verse, he details his difficult relationship with his mother, leading up to the point where he could no longer have her in his life. He describes being inspired by other people in his life (first a neighborhood elder, then his first wife) to find strength in the adversity he faces and use it to build a powerful future and positive outlook on life.
“Forest Whitiker” reflects Ali’s newly positive worldview and remains one of Ali’s most beloved tracks across his career. The bouncy, gospel-influenced track is an ode to loving oneself and celebrating your own worth. As an albino with a lazy eye, misshapen head, and who’s “anywhere from 25 to 30 pounds overweight,” Ali concedes that he’s not “that classic profile of what the ladies want.” Regardless he asserts, “when I look in the mirror, I see sexy ass me” and concludes, “You can call me ugly but can't take nothing from me / I am what I am doctor you ain't gotta love me.” Ali has said he originally wrote the song to make Ant laugh, but it resonated with his audience in ways he hadn’t envisioned.
The album draws to a close with “Victory! (Come Forward),” with Ali emerging like a hip-hop Andy Dufresne from the proverbial river of filth and ending up clean, emboldened, and ready to conquer. Over soaring horns and vocals, Ali brandishes a massive amount of swagger, proclaiming that he “spent my lifetime building, writing rhymes I remind rappers of everything that scared them as children” and that he’s “got the lungs of a cyclone, tongue of a python / The reason why your favorite emcee sleep with the lights on.” It’s an inspiring final statement for Ali, and the cornerstone he uses to build his future.
Brother Ali built a remarkably strong career over the next 15 years. Ant has remained his primary production collaborator, and they teamed with producer Jake One for Mourning in America (2012). His most recent album, All the Beauty In This Life (2017) is, in my opinion, one of the front-runners for best albums of the decade.
Ali has maintained his success by following the blueprint laid forth throughout Shadows On the Sun. He remains as adept as ever at using both sincerity and humor to deliver his message of love and acceptance. He continues to connect to his audience through his music, delving into his own life experiences, growing as a person along with his listeners. And though the darkness in life may remain ever present, he remains intent on casting a wide shadow of his own.