Brother Ali – Shadows on the Sun

3 out of 5

Label: Rhymesayers

Produced by: Ant

I’d like to spin some narrative in which I heard this disc upon release, and celebrated it alongside all those Atmosphere and other Rhymesayers-releases-of-the-day to which I should’ve been listening. But I’m kind of doubting that would’ve been the case.

Ali made his bones on being an excellent battle MC, and inserting slabs of poeticism and a keen avoidance of repetition in his rhymes; the quick, sharp wit is here – whether on battle tracks or not – and yes, we can appreciate how there’s not a line that doesn’t feel considered; when Ali might’ve gone for an easy rhyme instead of a thoughtful one.

But how far you get with this will be dependent on a couple factors: your preference for more subject matter, and your appreciation of this era of Ant’s production.

To the former, part of the “problem” is that I know Ali from albums that followed, which focused on social and political issues, with sprinkling of hype and battle and relationship woes woven in. The man has an opinion, which he expresses with intelligence and emotion, and so it’s hard to travel back to Shadows, when much of that is on the fringes of the disc. Ali was young, yes, but still capable of stunning narratives: opener Room With A View; Dorian; Picket Fence; several songs show the rapper reaching out with his brain with a worldly and local point of view, told / opinionated with that special sauce ingredient of his: optimism. These are stirring, fantastic songs, backed up by heavy, soulful Ant beats.

They also appear at relative ends of the album. A lot of what’s inbetween this 18-track, 60+ minute album, is much more normal fare: MC smack talk; some more humorous bits; battles. It’s all quality – Prince Charming is a creatively twisted approach I wish Ali would explore more – and Forest Whittaker will never not be fun, it’s just very lightweight in comparison to these other songs, and the albums BA would eventually drop. Positioned more as tracks alternating with heavier stuff, it could totally work; as the majority of the album, for me, it makes it fall rather flat, regardless of how much I love Ali’s delivery. (It should be noted that a 2022 listening of this does have some cringey moments in terms of the language and disparagements.)

As to the beats, while Ant does favor a bit more of a gospel, rootsy tone with BA, I feel like you could swap a lot of this for Atmosphere tracks at the time: soulful, a good hook, and then walk away and let it loop. It’s stuff that’s elevated by the MC – Slug and BA are good at that – but, again, over the course of an hour of a lot of same-soundy stuff, your head just bobs at a steady rate; the surprises are rare, and tend to be mapped to short blips of songs.

These things likely don’t bother you. And you probably have better taste than I do, and can properly set yourself in 2003 when this dropped, and was clearly the introduction of an artist-to-watch. That part is undeniable; how actively you watch this album in particular, and choose to watch it again, is where we may vary. But either way, it’s certainly better – smarter; showing off sharper skills – than 99% of what’s out there, and absolutely worth experiencing, even just as a stepping stone listen in BA’s career.