April 24, 2007

Brother Ali’s rap blends bad-ass beats and conscience

Albino, overweight, and legally blind. No, this is not the profile of an ill-fated lab rat, but the self-deprecating self-description of underground rapper Brother Ali. Born Jason Newman, Ali relocated to Minneapolis at 15, became a Muslim, and surrounded himself with the flourishing hip-hop culture that culminated in the new label Rhymesayers Entertainment. With the creative and mental support of Atmosphere front-man Slug and the production of Rhymesayers in-house producer Ant (Anthony Davis), Ali has made himself known. Brother Ali’s tour in support of his April 10 release The Undisputed Truth made its stop Saturday night at Subterranean to a sweaty, psyched crowd eager to show its love and loyalty.

From the moment Ali’s large, pale torso entered the venue, the crowd was energized and eager for him to take the stage. However, opening acts Psalm One and MC Longshot managed to temporarily distract the crowd, generating their own cheers and respect. Psalm One was most impressive during her long, extremely quick solo raps, showcasing her fluid style.

Masterfully building the energy toward a climax at Brother Ali’s entrance, Ali’s DJ BK One and lead pumper-upper (and occasional backup rapper) Toki Wright maintained a party atmosphere by mixing Prince, Michael Jackson, and other dance-hall favorites. The crowd danced in the monochrome lights before catching a glimpse of Ali slowly navigating his way down the rickety spiral staircase of Subterranean’s stage (something Ali later likened to an elephant walking across a trip wire) and welcoming him with a roar. It was finally show time.

As Ali opened with “Truth Is,” the crowd was quick to identify the fresh sounds of his newest album and sway along to the familiar funk and soul-laden sounds. They readily chanted along, “The truth is here, the truth is here,” eager for the album’s long-awaited release and, more importantly, for the lyrical purity Ali aligns himself with.

Unlike most rappers, Ali takes the abused expression “keep it real” literally and seriously. Numerous times throughout his set he remarked how elated he was to be performing for such an enthusiastic and supportive crowd, and that the show was “ours” not “mine,” a testament to his still-underground status. He was so delighted with the enthrallment of the “Sub-T” (as he calls it) crowd that he told all the cell-phone photographers to put their devices away and enjoy the moment, rather than lose themselves trying to create a souvenir for the future.

Repeatedly providing choruses and backgrounds, the crowd even provided a now-taboo lyric (“Mr. Tough Guy, one punch bring out the fag in ’em”) to “Dorian,” a tale of confrontation with a domestically abusive neighbor, with Ali asking the audience to respectfully never use that word again. Respectful, responsible, and hip-hop? It seems only an artist, abused for his own queer appearance as an adolescent, could burn such a bridge.

Now, comfortable with his identity, Ali playfully pokes fun at it. “Forest Whitaker” could be considered his personal anthem, and considering the crowd’s response Saturday, it may be so. Rapping “I’m albino, man, I know I’m pink and pale/ and I’m hairy as hell, everywhere but fingernails,” he finally confronts the underlying question, stating, “You might think I’m depressed as can be/ but when I look in the mirror I see sexy-ass me.” This is a refreshing, humble portrayal of a rapper with a conscience. He is beautiful—no matter what they say.

One of the strongest songs on his new album, “Freedom Ain’t Free,” didn’t have the crowd up in arms like I had anticipated, maybe because of the more low-key reggae sound and orchestrations. However, this did little to detract from the concert.

Under considerable pressure to match the acclaim of his 2003 Rhymesayers debut Shadows on the Sun, Ali’s sophomore effort The Undisputed Truth and its accompanying tour have not disappointed. Lyrically inventive with the soulful bass to match, Ali raps with conviction, tenacity, and, surprisingly, only a slight chip on his albino shoulder, all of which were apparent at Sub-T’s.