nly in Hip-Hop World, the territory of the frequent 80-minute hip-hop LP, would a 40 minute long release be designated an “EP”. The Champion EP is such a statement, a formidable album-length follow-up to last year’s Shadows on the Sun. Hip-Hop Land is also one of the few places you could find an outsider-character like Brother Ali—a self-deprecating, intelligent and talented overweight albino man who embodies hip-hop’s contradictory nature.
Appropriately, the degree to which Brother Ali has infused the Champion EP with his personality is its greatest strength. Ali is proud and confident, a quality especially apparent on the opening “Champion (Remix)”. At the same time, he is often reflective and self-critical—although this release contains none of labelmate Atmosphere’s occasionally overwrought self-flagellation. The EP also shows Brother Ali confident with his status in hip-hop—“Imagine what a trip it is rappin’ for little shits/ who think that DJin’ was invented by [labelmate] Mr. Dibbs/ Thing of it is, those are the main ones that show us support/ So I owe ‘em my existence”. While other indie hip-hop artists often try to distance themselves from their own fanbases, Brother Ali’s acceptance of his place within the hip-hop world is comforting.
Perhaps the most captivating aspect of Brother Ali’s persona, though, is his passion—the man exudes hunger and vitality, never sounds tired or bored and is always thoughtful and verbose. Luckily, his enthusiasm is put to good use over some of producer Ant’s strongest work to date. Ant’s beats are tight, funky and focused, and provide the perfect backdrop for Brother Ali’s inspired reflections. From the haunting, booming brass beat of “Sleepwalker” to the mournful 80s-synth funk of “Chain Link”, Ant’s production work is exceptionally strong, without stealing the spotlight.
And it most definitely is Ali’s spotlight. Aside from a couple punch-ins from Atmosphere’s Slug and Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, Ali’s personality thankfully dominates the proceedings. “There’s a thin line between anger and hunger my man, and I ride a unicycle down the middle”, Ali admits sincerely before ripping into the flute driven soul of “Self Taught”. Ali comes down on the “hungry” side of the line, appropriately enough, for his animated ode to cunnilingus, “Heads Down”. The climax of the album, however, is Ali’s mournful, observational rapping on “Chain Link.” At once a salute to those who work the system and a sharp critique of the system’s inequities, the song’s chorus “What’s the use when the real strive hard and stress about the rent/ and can still die poor and in debt without a cent”, grounds Ali’s normally boisterous braggadocious flow with trenchant analysis of systematic poverty.
Ali is complicated, to say the least. Simultaneously self-conscious and proud, full of empathy for those who struggle and vitriol towards the system unfairly pitted against them, Ali embodies hip-hop in a way that seems almost contrary to his role as an outsider. Luckily, it’s only an outsider-driven art like hip-hop that would not only accept so unlikely a hero, but give him an outlet. The superb Champion EP is the result.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2004-05-18