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+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
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+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
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Brother Ali
Champion EP
Rhymesayers Entertainment

One of hip-hop's unlikeliest heroes, Brother Ali has been simmering for a minute now. After the nearly universal acclaim of his 2003 Rhymesayers debut, Shadows on the Sun, and one of the most thrilling live hip-hop shows treading across the nation today, he's set the bar rather high for himself. His newest project, Champion EP, is just meant to be something to tide fans over until his next longplayer comes this winter. But there's some truly yeoman work on this nine-song effort, which shows off a verbal ferocity reminiscent of a young Ice Cube and focused, soulful production courtesy of Rhymesayers in-house mixologist, the always-improving Ant.

Ali, a red-eyed Muslim albino, doesn't really look the part of the true school MC. His appearance is the subject not just of some of his more personal music, but also nearly every piece of criticism written about him. Frankly, it's a peripheral element of his music. What matters more is his ability to toss a battle rhyme in the midst of a thoughtful ode to treating his wife with respect, without making any of it sound forced or dishonest. Versatility, fury and a fighter's zeal (hence the name) take precedence over the white-face/black-soul dualities.

The EP opens with a blistering, dub-inflected remix of "Champion," a standout track from his debut album. Viscerally re-recorded vocals and thumping production make the intense original sound frail in comparison. On the typically aggressive "Bad Ma Fucka" Ant provides Ali with a muddy blues stomp wherein a chunky Stratocaster and a squealing harmonica duel. The setting perfectly complements the force in his voice. Ali effortlessly bounces from shitkicker battling to the sensitive-guy swagger propelled by his label mate (and Atmosphere leader) Slug on such cuts as "Love on Display" and the mesmerizing "Heads Down (You Haven't Done That)," which is gospel bravado in the truest sense.

On the Motown-inspired, handclap-powered "Self Taught," Ali reminds listeners of his dedication to both his faith and moving the crowd. "When me and my dogs out tourin' the nation/ I spit with an intensity you have to witness/ Look close, my blood on the back of the tickets/ It's that religious, it's what I teach my son/ How to read the Qur'an and how a party is won." It's these normally sticky dichotomies that separate Ali from other faux spiritual hip-hop heads (read: Freeway, Mase). Skin conditions, devout beliefs, and emotional outcries — these do not a rugged MC make. But Ali's line is clearly drawn and impressively declared on Champion EP.

by Sean Fennessey

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