At first glance, Minneapolis doesn't seem like a hip hop city, and Brother Ali (born Jason Newman) sure doesn't seem like a hip hop artist. But it's Newman - a white, albino Midwesterner dad who converted to Islam - who is making huge waves in the local and national hip hop scenes. Newman may look very different from a typical rapper, but his music stems from the same places from which some of the most profound hip hop has ever come: pain, redemption and hardship. And he knows these places well. Newman lived in several Midwestern towns but his family settled in Minneapolis in the early '90s. Because of his albinism, he was excluded by many of his white peers and has said he's said he often identified more with black culture. Also because of his condition, Newman's race isn't apparent at first and unfortunately, questions about his background have often overshadowed his music.
But none of that matters to Brother Ali. On Us, his fourth album, he's beyond proving himself. He's ready to tell all of our life stories, especially those without a voice of their own: immigrants, children of divorce, closeted gay teens ("Tight Rope"), slaves ("The Travelers"), sexual abuse victims ("Babygirl") and hustlers ("Games") alike. Whether his own experience or just an uncanny empathetic ability is what allows him to do it, Brother Ali has a way of channeling almost anyone's pain. He also has an uncanny ability to coolly convey that emotion through smart rhymes adrift a sea of R&B- and funk-tinged beats. Produced by Ant of Rhymesayers labelmates Atmosphere, Us can be enjoyed purely for its lyrics or for its beats and samples, but it's best when appreciated for both. The album isn't without its stereotypical hip hop references to guns, pimps and Newman's perceived "badness," but these moments are just brief repreives from the intensity of rest of Us.
The scrutiny Newman has received throughout his career would be enough to drive most people away from the spotlight, but he's gone the opposite way. Through his refusal to fit into a convenient category (musical, racial, geographic or religious) and his insistence on telling the stories of the oft-forgotten "Us" (even if they are uncomfortable ones to tell), Newman commits an act of defiance - he continues to exist.