May 11th, 2007
Title: Undisputed Truth
Artist: Brother Ali
Catalog No.: RSE0080-2
White rappers have been enigmas in new school hip hop ever since the Beastie Boys debuted in 1986. Recently, the immense success of white rapper Eminem opened both the mainstream and underground doors for white rappers. Unlike their predecessors in other forms of black music, white rappers typically must confront identity issues as outsiders in a black dominated world.
The history of whites in rap music is relatively unremarkable, but has a few noteworthy moments. The first white rap release was new wave/punk group Blondie’s 1981 song, “Rapture,” which became the first rap song to reach the top of the pop charts. In 1986, punk-turned-rap group the Beastie Boys issued License to Ill, which became the largest selling rap album of its time. Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme album knocked MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em off the top of the chart. In late 1999, Eminem, the protégé of hip hop super-producer Dr. Dre, released his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, to much critical and commercial acclaim. This was the beginning of a very successful career that has included a string of hit albums, a successful movie, and Grammy and Oscar awards.
Underground hip hop, especially in recent years, has been fertile ground for white rappers. Freed from the marketing influences of the major labels who place a premium on commercial viability, white rappers can often achieve relative success in the underground scene where talent trumps image. Three notable white rap albums have been released so far in 2007: Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth, Evidence’s The Weatherman LP, and El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. While having many similarities, the differences between these three albums allows for further exploration of white influence and identity in the black dominated world of hip hop music.
Hailing from Minneapolis, Brother Ali participated in breaking, graffiti, and rapping as a child. His debut album, Shadows on the Sun (2003), was released by Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minnesota-based label that is home to biracial underground legend Slug, among others. Shadows on the Sun received much critical acclaim and, in the minds of many, stands as one of the finest hip hop albums of this decade. His follow-up EP, Champion (2004), furthered Ali’s fame among underground hip hop fans.
In his music Brother Ali balances introspection and storytelling, allowing the listener to attempt an understanding of who he is. Brother Ali is a white albino and, while he addresses this in songs such as “Forest Whitiker” from Shadows on the Sun, he prefers not to discuss race, feeling that it is a barrier not only musically, but socially as well. Furthermore, he is a Muslim and frequently infuses his music with spiritual references. Like all humans, Brother Ali is a complex individual, and the introspective nature of his music naturally reflects the complexity of the human spirit.
The Undisputed Truth expresses a period of great change in Brother Ali’s life. Between his 2003 debut album and the release of this record, Ali has gotten a divorce, been through a custody battle over his young son, and had instances of homelessness. Ali, however, turns these trials into triumphs through the album, which consists of a handful of battle tracks but is primarily composed of very pointed conceptual songs.
“Walking Away” and “Here” are two very somber tracks that address the dissolution of Ali’s marriage. Like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear (1978), Ali not only speaks to his audience, but also to his former wife, in a very therapeutic manner. “Faheem” is a conversation with his son in which Ali teaches him life lessons, discusses issues with his mother, and expresses his love for the young boy. The aforementioned songs lead up to “Ear to Ear,” the albums final track and a celebration of overcoming the issues previously addressed on the album.
“Daylight” is dedicated to those who criticize not only his music, but how he lives his life. He discusses everything from the contradictions between his religion and his behavior to his complicated racial identity. The most intriguing lines of the song are:
They ask me if I’m black or white, I’m neither
race is a made up thing, I don’t believe in it
my genes tie me to those that despise me
made a livin’ killin’ the ones that inspire me
I ain’t just talkin’ ‘bout singin’ and dancing
I was taught life and manhood by black men
So I’m a product of that understandin’
So a part of me feels that I am them
Does that make me a liar, maybe
But I don’t want the white folks who praise me
To think they can claim me
In this quotation, Ali expresses the ideology that is both part of his everyday social experience as well as his music. The racial ambiguity caused by his albinism forces him to deal with race in ways that are not required of other white rappers. Questions about his race are frequently brought up in interviews and “Daylight” is Ali’s attempt to put these issues to rest. Although not believing in the concept of race, due to life experiences he identifies more closely with Blacks than with his actual white heritage. Ali acknowledges this quasi-contradiction, and in a hip hop world now affected by racial politics, he establishes his racial identity in order to prevent misrepresentation of his music and selfhood. (Continued in the next post)
Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins
Review Genre(s): Rap and Hip-Hop