Mourning and dreaming with Brother Ali

***** (5 stars out of 6); May 21 at Lille Vega

In what seems like a lifetime ago, I was a huge hip-hop fan. But as time went on, I drifted away and there remained only a very small handful of artists that I even bothered keeping tabs on.

Brother Ali is one of those artists. But that he – along with his Rhymesayers labelmates Atmosphere – still holds my interest is not surprising, for Brother Ali is anything but a normal rapper. The albino, Muslim MC doesn't rap about the hedonistic topics so prevalent in hip-hop – namely sex, drugs, and violence – but about everyday struggles, issues of self-doubt and self-worth, love and relationships, class struggle and social injustice.

When Ali took the stage last night at Vega and plunged into ‘The Preacher’, there was no doubt that in the years since I last saw him perform live he has further perfected his craft.

Immediately ditching his Luciano track jacket in favour of a black Rhymesayers t-shirt, Ali– like the vast majority of the capacity crowd – was quickly drenched in sweat and fully engaged in the performance.

Following with ‘Truth Is’, and ‘Tight Rope’, the 34-year-old Minneapolis native had Lille Vega hanging on his every word. As he segued into ‘Fresh Air’ off his 2009 album Us, Ali led the crowd on a sing-along of the feel-good chorus “I love the life I live, my laughter and my tears/I don’t know where I’m goin’ but I like it like it is”.

But those who listen beyond the arm-waving chorus are given an insight into the rapper’s home life and his professional climb: “Just got married last year/treated so good that it ain’t even fair/Already got a boy, now the baby girl’s here/bought us a house like the Berenstein Bears.”

As he then discussed his upcoming album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color,  he delivered an intensely personal and touching a cappella rhyme detailing the emotional ups and downs he’s been through since the release of Us, including which included a bout of depression despite finally achieving enough career success that he even found himself “close enough to smell Beyonce’s perfume”.

But while Ali excels in personal lyrics, his other area of expertise lies in wading into the political as displayed by his performance of ‘Uncle Sam Goddamn’ with its incendiary chorus of “Welcome to the United Snakes/Land of the thief, home of the slave/Grand imperial guard where the dollar is sacred and power is god.”

For this reviewer, the highlight of the night was a late set run-through of songs from the seminal 2003 album Shadows on the Sun and the following year’s Champion EP: ‘Rain Water’, ‘Forest Whitaker’, ‘Blah Blah Blah’, and ‘Self Taught’.

After a short break, the MC came back out for another new song off Mourning in America before closing with ‘Us’, leaving the crowd inspired by the man who may look like – in his own words – “a mix between the KFC guy and Santa Claus”, but who sounds like one of the most talented rappers to ever hold the mic.

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