“There’s only three reasons Ali would need a Ramada/ One: To move the bowels/ Two: To steal the towels/ Three: Shave, shower, pray for my spiritual power.” No line sums up Shadows on the Sun better. Throughout his second album, Rhymesayer’s Brother Ali walks a tightrope between a man trying to be kind and do the right thing and a man not to be trifled with — the same tightrope that we all constantly walk.
The dichotomy is often parsed to a cartoonish extent in contemporary hip hop; one song is all about gats while the next preaches “teach the children.” But Ali truly lives this balancing act on Shadows, incorporating aspects of both into every song. The result is very sincere and very human. Anyone can fight off destructive urges and be righteous for three and a half minutes, but a good faith effort takes work day in and day out. The honesty is appreciated and the unique perspective — Ali is an albino from Minnesota — adds an interesting tint to the record.
Shadows is by no means message at the expense of entertainment. Ali has a knack for enticing choruses, ranging from the bold boasts of “Champion,” to the defiant call for respect of the black roots of hip-hop on “Pay Them Back,” to the uplifting self-affirmation of “Forest Whitaker.” His willingness to rhyme like a tough guy then bust out in semi-melodious singing is at worst endearing. After one such bout of song a voice declares “He’s good!” while a second voice opines “You must be crazy.” In other spots his frantic delivery is balanced by a smooth pace that invites the listener on his journeys through the realities of life: “As a boy she told me ‘Wait for your father to come home.’/ I’m 24, still waiting for my father to come home.”
Shadows retains a conventionality that should resonate with hip-hop fans that were buying records back in the early to mid ’90s. The album kicks off with overlapping voices chanting “shadows on the sun” reminiscent of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “Ghettos of the Mind”; while the nostalgia is nice, it never strays too far from the simple jazz/funk sample + steady hi-hat beat. I mean no disrespect to fellow Rhymesayer Ant (of Atmosphere fame) when I say an instrumental version of this album would be a disappointment; it’s a testament to his restraint and willingness to take a backseat to a talented emcee, providing support rather than grasping for the spotlight.
Ranging from threatening to theologic to thoughtful, the album certainly makes for some big time mood swings. The variety, however, is more a strength than a distraction, as Ali’s deft rhymes hold Shadows together. His talents as a storyteller are indisputable, and he definitely proves he can flow, but a few more risks might push him into the upper echelon. I have no doubt he could survive with a higher level of difficulty.