Seated amid the office-space denizens rushing in and out of the City Center Starbucks, Brother Ali at once looks more out of the ordinary than usual, but somehow more anonymous. The downtown Minneapolis coffee shop is a good place to not get recognized as one of Minnesota's famous rappers.
Or infamous, some might now say.
"I just got a message from a guy on Facebook who served in Afghanistan," he says, looking up from his smartphone, where he's also checking the number of YouTube views for his controversial new video (50,000 in just a few days). Solemnly, he says, "The dude said he's coming out to the Boston show to drop me on my face."
Welcome to Brother Ali's world circa 2012. His sales and page views are as strong as ever, and so are his personal convictions. He was arrested for them in June at an Occupy Homes protest. He aired them on the Huffington Post three weeks ago in a widely debated essay, "The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Homophobia."
Mostly, though, Ali poured those pesky morals all over his provocative fourth album, "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color," which brings his tour back to town -- hopefully, with his albino-skinned face intact -- for shows Friday and Saturday at First Avenue.
Two days before he hit the road with a new live band -- and two weeks before violent anti-American protests arose in the Middle East -- Ali talked at length about how his Muslim faith and frustrations with America shaped the album, and the cover photo that prompted the Boston threat.
"This album is my prayer for America," he explained of the artwork, which shows the rapper kneeling on a U.S. flag in a Muslim prayer pose.
"Unless you are absolutely convinced that all of Islam is against you as an American, you should only see it as me treating the flag reverently."
Love it or hate it, the cover image trumpets the fact that "Mourning in America" is not like Ali's last record, "Us," a complacent-sounding effort that reflected his new marriage and newfound success. Nor is it a repeat of his 2007 breakout, "The Undisputed Truth," an autobiographical album that chronicled his trouble-fraught transformation from a social outcast and a homeless, struggling artist into a single father and Muslim.
There was plenty of recent turmoil in Ali's life that could have defined the new album. His father killed himself. His friend and fellow indie-rap star, Mikey "Eyedea" Larsen, died of an overdose. His marriage almost fell apart during a 10-month tour promoting "Us."
"A lot of crying," is how Ali summed it up.
All of those woes are covered wham-bam style in the breathlessly paced song "Stop the Press," which attempts to get Ali's personal story out of the way so he can tackle bigger issues.
"Any one of those topics probably could've made up an entire song on their own," Ali said, "but then the record would have wound up being 'The Undisputed Truth, Part 2.' My fans might've liked that, but I didn't want that."
'I'm challenging myself'
If there's anything in hip-hop that "Mourning in America" mimics, it's the fiery sociopolitical tone of such groups as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. While Jay-Z and Kanye West spent last year's "Watch the Throne" album bragging about how rich and famous they are, Ali revives those '80s rappers' defense of America's lower-class citizens. He even based his album title on President Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election slogan.
"Get the wolves off the sheep," he growls in "Fajr," one of his most ferocious tracks ever. In the cooler-headed, soulful gem "Work Everyday" he portrays the woes of the unemployed ("Greed could never leave well enough alone / They keep on squeezing till we bleed from every bone"). And in "Only Life I Know" -- one of the songs spiked with Impressions-style horns from Ali's new band -- he takes on health care politics and government spending priorities:
"Who decides you don't have enough to teach children? / The state is spending millions on stadiums and prisons."
Then there's "Mourning in America," an anti-violence screed with that shocking video. Scenes of a hoodie-wearing black man on the run, a machine-gun toting soldier and a woman with a belly lined with suicide bombs accompany such rapid-fire lyrics as, "When innocent people perish, it's a thin line between a soldier and a terrorist."
At times on the album, Ali sounds preachy. Occasionally he seems guilty and desperate to help. But throughout, he sticks to his guns and aims them at everyone.
"I'm demanding change, and obviously some people aren't going to want to hear that," Ali admitted.
"People have obviously been hurting. Here I was enjoying success, and things were getting bad everywhere you go. That didn't sit right with me. As much as anyone else, I'm challenging myself to remember what it's like to be struggling, and to take responsibility for making things better."
Ali credits several people for pushing him in this challenging direction, from Eyedea ("He taught us all not to repeat ourselves artistically") to the record's Seattle-bred producer/beatmaker, Jake One ("He's big on drums, which naturally makes things heavier") to author and lecturer Cornel West. The Princeton professor provides a guest rap of sorts in the opening track "Letter to My Countrymen," in which he directly lectures Ali: "You don't want to be just well-adjusted to injustice and well-adapted to indifference."
West isn't the only prominent African-American activist to support the white Minneapolis rapper's social-justice efforts. Public Enemy's leader, rap legend Chuck D, contributed to Ali's last album and invited him to guest on PE's latest.
Ali has said his albino skin makes him a victim of racial prejudice, too.
Locally, Ali also has the full support of Makram El-Amin, an imam at Masjid An-Nur, the north Minneapolis mosque where the rapper worships.
"His success is our success," said El-Amin. "He greatly values his religion and uses it to keep him grounded."
A Muslim convert since he changed his name from Jason Newman in his late teens, Ali said, "Not a lot of people can see things from both sides of the aisle the way I can. I have lived in the hard neighborhoods, and I have lived in the suburbs. I'm a proud Muslim and a proud American. I have stood up for gay rights and I have, regretfully, used the F-word in my music."
'Make it count'
Even as he spoke of serious concerns and the potential threat to his safety, Ali sounded hopeful and happy.
"This past year has been the best year of my life," he said, pointing to his patched-up marriage ("We came out of it stronger than ever") and a long stretch of time at home. Of course, he didn't exactly watch the flowers grow.
Arrested in June on charges of trespassing and refusing police orders at a peaceful Occupy Homes protest at a foreclosed house in south Minneapolis, Ali is unsure of the legal consequences. He said he could avoid heavy punishment if he accepts a plea deal, "but then I would get in a lot more trouble if I were to do something like that again. I don't know if I can accept that."
More immediately, the charges might affect his travels abroad: "We have two Canadian dates on the tour," he said glumly.
Another recent turning point in Ali's life was a trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Besides the obvious inspiration from it, his tour group happened to include another musician who became his bunk mate and friend: Kahlil Shaheed, a 70-year-old jazzman who played with funk-rock pioneer Buddy Miles. He succumbed to lung cancer shortly after the trek.
"He said to me, 'I feel like I was just your age a week ago,'" Ali remembered, smiling warmly. "He kept pressing me on how quickly life goes. 'You gotta make it count,' he said."
At least that's one lesson we can all agree on.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib