If One Be Lo didn’t exist, hip-hop would create him. How else do you explain an emcee who so gracefully balances appeal and elitism, skills and scruples? One whose love for soulful crate-digging could give Pete Rock a hard-on, whose unwavering allegiance to the cerebral underground could make Native Tongues wag?
Nashid Sulaiman is this party’s candidate for that archetype. Formerly known as One Man Army as part of the successful indie-rap group Binary Star, Sulaiman adopted a more appropriate moniker to fit his brand of if-you’re-not-listening-you’re-sleeping hip-hop. After spending much of the ’90s working on side projects (and, according to the press release, a few years in jail), One Be Lo readied his official solo debut, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (a great acronym that stands for the cornier Sounds of Nashid Originate Good Rhymes and Music).
Lo grew up outside of Detroit chewing on late-’80s hip-hop before getting on the mike in ’92. It makes sense, then, that both his beats (which he produced with partner Decompoze under the name Trackezoids) and his rhymes reflect a golden year that saw Diamond D, Showbiz & A.G., Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and Grand Puba release top-notch records thick with bass lines and verbalz. Lo sounds like rap’s Rip Van Winkle, awoken after a decade-plus of mainstream suck-cess that has left much of the culture devoid of identity (it’s fucked up when VH-1 becomes a leading authority on hip-hop).
S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. plays like the last thirteen years never saw a clothing line or an unsolved murder, when going gold was cool but hitting platinum was selling out. I spent much of the time listening in glory-days-mode, reminiscing about “Rap City” and wondering why the hell Black Moon stopped making records. True, the album’s twenty-two tracks feature a handful of guests and a pair of skits, but the cameos, all unknowns, don’t outshine the star, and the skits blend music with dialog to make a point that a song couldn’t (in other words, they have a purpose). One Be Lo’s delivery doesn’t throw too many curveballs, but the payoffs on “Sleepwalking” and “The Future,” where his flow and the beat seem like they were separated at birth, is enough to keep your eyes open through the drowsiness of tracks like “True Love.”
S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. is the first debut that marks an excellent return to form.