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Brother Ali 

Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers)

If MTV is right and hip-hop is about image, this is the last time you'll ever have to read about Brother Ali. The 250-pound Minnesota albino knows his mug won't grace the cover of The Source anytime soon. But if we ever get to the point where hip-hop is about honest urban story-telling, mic skills and enough charisma to blow the roof off a bingo night, Ali will be one of hip-hop's brightest stars. On Shadows on the Sun, Ali's sophomore release on Rhymesayers (home to Atmosphere, Eyedea and others), the MC takes lessons from his own upbringing, inner-city surroundings and physical shortcomings to speak to a universal audience. And when a voice as commanding as Ali's steps up to speak, you best listen.

On "Forest Whitiker," Ali confesses over a soulful gospel-organ-laced track that he's albino, he's overweight, he has a lazy eye, his shaved head is misshapen, he's hairy -- and that's just the half of it. But he doesn't apologize or ask for pity; instead, he exudes the confidence of someone with D'Angelo's chest, LL Cool J's face and Master P's bank account. Brother Ali's self-assurance shines throughout Shadows, his voice powerful, his delivery engaging and his fuse short -- meaning that, like most rappers, he's quick to snap on that age-old rag doll everyone loves to toss around: the wack MC. On "Champion," the seasoned battle veteran "be diligently killin' in soliloquies these millipedes who try to pass themselves off as ill MCs." Likewise, on "Missing Teeth" (one of two songs featuring labelmate and hip-hop heartthrob Slug, of Atmosphere), he warns to "respect the fucking legend when he breathes, before you get a K-Swiss logo embedded in your knees."

All the music is handled by Ant, whose past credits include production on the majority of Atmosphere's releases. Whereas Ant's backing choices for Slug usually feature haunting piano lines and lush keyboard arrangements, his selections for Ali are much more soulful and heavy, the perfect foundation for Ali's booming vocals. From the Wu-Tangy trumpets of "Room with a View" to the thunderous blues drum break of "Bitchslap!" to the spaced-out Eastern flute loop on "Soul Whisper," Ant keeps the sounds as varied as Ali's voice and song-style, providing the proper foundation for Ali to paint the picture he sees through his window, embarrass an amateur rapper or rhyme prayers in Arabic.

The ultimate spokesman for underground hip-hop, Ali shows the mainstream rap audience it's OK not to conform to the standard hip-hop artist mold and shows his fellow independent artists it's OK to stick to the fundamentals of hip-hop music without sounding like a throwback act.

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