Introducing ‘Notes from Mr. Sandman‘ – a column slapping a spotlight on lyricists overlooked, under appreciated, or just plain criminally slept on. Or like a man named Nas once said, “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Enter Mr. Sandman with what y’all missed while chasing the REM dragon.
Just one look at Brother Ali and you know something is different. He’s albino, bald and as big as an ox, looking like he’d be better suited for the gridiron than the stage. But take a closer look and what you’ll see is a humble but confident lyricist who’s dedicated himself to the things that matter most in his life: his faith, his family and his craft.
Lyrically he’s as formidable as any of his contemporaries, his delivery is as hard as nails, lyrical foundation rooted in personal experiences as opposed to baseless braggadocio. When he first came on the scene no one was really sure what to expect. He was a great battle rapper and could tell a story. But could it translate? It took just a couple albums in before those questions were answered.
Shadows on the Sun – his sophomore album – is a definitive portrait, a good place for new fans to get acquainted. The album chronicles his days as a budding lyricist and what it’s like to be broke, homeless and involved in a highly volatile relationship. In every song you can hear the sense of urgency bubbling underneath. But throughout it all he maintains an enlightened attitude, one that has come to define Ali. Take a listen to “Forest Whitaker” and you’ll hear the very heartbeat that keeps Ali going: [LISTEN]
Ali’s physical appearance has been a topic of discussion since the beginning and, quite frankly, is an overplayed angle because ultimately it’s his perspective that shines the brightest. He’s the embodiment of substance before style. He could have easily jumped the shark and submitted to the gimmick route, but he steered clear, never wavering from the things that matter most, particularly his faith.
As a devout Muslim Ali isn’t afraid to bridge the gap between religion and music. On Us we get a chance to see a more comfortable Ali who goes in on myriad hot button issues while still paying homage at the same time. “The Preacher” is an example of how his faith has fueled and sustained his progress: [LISTEN]
Brother Ali is proof that being a rapper doesn’t mean having to sell out nor does it mean that you have to live in a ditch as a struggling artist. He’s doing quite well for himself and in this stretch of his career he’s fortified his views on family, religion and politics.
The last time I spoke with Ali was about seven years ago at the Abbey Pub in Chicago. I asked him what he saw himself doing in ten years and he said he didnt know but if he had to choose it’d be a kindergarten teacher. While that dream may be a few years off – as he’s still making quality music – the man is still very much an educator. He’s also a poet, a father and a devout Muslim who uses hip-hop as his weapon. And as told in “Pedigree” he’s of a totally different class: [LISTEN]