It started with "Countdown to Armageddon." The lead track to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back literally sounded the alarm to hip-hop’s most cogent articulation of style, politics, and everything but the action – precisely what art should be. However, perhaps because that album set the bar so high, that track also unintentionally started a slow countdown to one of the most belabored clichés in hip-hop.
In the wake of Chuck D’s incessant polemics, Flavor Flav’s unselfconscious aesthetics and the Bomb Squad’s funk calisthenics is a self-obsessed means to an end as artists increasingly contemplate their self and hip-hop in the most relatable terms: life and death. Sure, there have been numerous classics in the interim. Cube dished it with a grimace on Death Certificate. De la declared itself D.O.A., while Common came back from it. Even the RZA and Prince Paul found cartoonish glamour 6 Feet Deep. However, 2Pac and Biggie sealed the deal too literally. That the ’90s closed with a jiggified climax only tightened the reigns on hip-hop’s ego trip. And while some artists have searched backwards (Get Back) and forward (Graduation), high (Aquemini) and low (Love Below) for alternatives, hip-hop’s principle faces remained fixated on the man in the mirror: Curtis, TI vs. T.I.P., etc. (c’mon, Jay, I’m waiting for that self-titled joint).
So, with so much death and resurrection, why do we need another self-sung R.E.B.I.R.T.H.? One Be Lo continues a familiar hip-hop tradition by touting his return on the follow-up to his 2005 record S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. The emcee and producer has traversed similarly well-trodden territory before, both as one half of late ’90s duo Binary Star and as a solo artist doling out backwards-glancing, sample-based hip-hop. To his credit, he avoided many of the clichés by writing songs that were both artful and matter-of-fact. When he focused his attention (on his home of Pontiac, Michigan, to be exact), he channeled the wit and fervor of hip-hop’s pantheon. However, on R.E.B.I.R.T.H. he neither bucks the trends, nor fully steers clear of emulating the familiar cranks. One Be Lo simply ends up stuck in the middle.
R.E.B.I.R.T.H.‘s principle flaw is its inability to fess up to its "me-ness." What he evidently intended to be a personal narrative instead appears to be first draft snapshots that reveal little of substance. Again, Lo covers the bread and butter staples of signifying and storytelling, talking up a shit storm on the title track and weaving a crossroads morality tale in "The G Gap." However, the overall album narrative is surprisingly impersonal and unfocused. After the opening chest beating, the purported pull-up-your-bootstraps theme of "Keep It Rollin’" soon rings hollow as Lo offers more gripes than actions. Songs like "Smash" (a song "about being a survivor," according to Lo) and "War" ("how any nice guy can get pushed to the edge and there’s nothing left to do except fight back") sound like an escalating defensive streak that, when sequenced next to the two world-weary cuts "Headlines" and "Don’t Sleep," makes most of the album feel like grumpy misanthropy and mild paranoia.
A more notable weakness of R.E.B.I.R.T.H. is the outsourcing of production, which leads to a predictably uneven listen. Whereas on S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. One Be Lo more or less single-handedly molded the album to create a loose yet potent narrative – something like a kaleidoscopic "day in the life" – he has noticeably less control over the results on R.E.B.I.R.T.H. While he clearly has input on every track, from the structure to the nuances, he limits the coherence of the album by selecting from another’s work. At best, R.E.B.I.R.T.H. sounds like a good mixtape instead of a good album.
Fortunately, One Be Lo doesn’t dwell too long on the general wackness of being and salvages the second half by bringing out the first person. The album closers "Gray" and "Hip Hop Heaven" find Lo in his comfort zone where he uses fiction and fantasy to negotiate his ambiguities and doubts, instead of masking them. He also makes effective use of interstitial samples again, this time pulling movie quotes from celluloid’s forgotten fatalist anti-heroes: Clubber Lang and his now-familiar spiels (some of the same parts used in Ghostface’s recent "The Champ"), along with Richard Pryor’s man on the verge of a nervous breakdown speeches from the Taxi Driver jump-off Blue Collar. Though these gems are buried in R.E.B.I.R.T.H.‘s flailing flotsam, these moments effectively unnerve the listener and better convey what exactly is weighing so heavily on Lo’s mind. For what it’s, R.E.B.I.R.T.H.‘s most revealing moments present a welcome alternative to the current spectrum of Oprah/Dr. Phil catharsis (Graduation) and In Treatment narcissism (Curtis) – maybe the next joint will yield a true Ego Trip 2.0?