One Be Lo’s alias OneManArmy is somewhat of a misnomer. Coming from the impoverished streets of Pontiac, Michigan, he inadvertently belongs to a select yet growing group of proficient, Detroit-based emcees—all of whom are born of the dogma of deceased producer J Dilla. Among the likes of Phat Kat, Black Milk, and Slum Village, One Be Lo is rooted in the old-school, soul-sampled sounds of Dilla’s production while preaching about civil injustices, street life, and what it takes to get by. And though this seems to pigeonhole One as a cookie-cut backpack emcee, he’s found a way to elevate the genre á la Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides and Talib Kweli’s Quality with his latest release The R.E.B.I.R.T.H. (Real Emcee’s Bring Intelligent Rhymes To Hip-hop).
Though none of the Dilla’s beats appear on R.E.B.I.R.T.H., the Detroit sound (read: Dilla’s sound) permeates the entire disc. The album’s opener “Rebirth” features a sample that recalls RZA’s Shaolin interludes before exploding into the signature synth-driven bounce and swinging, hazy percussion. One’s innovative lyricism becomes immediately apparent: “I refuse to lose, lose, lose like echo”. His use of syntactical construction to mirror the context of his flows is impressively catchy and effective. “War” is similarly Dilla-esque. The cascading bells and walking bassline hint at Dilla’s more spastic work.
But the beats aren’t the only aspect of the disc that breathe Detroit. The epochal “Born & Raised” boasts One’s time growing up in Pontiac (“They say there’s no place like home”). A far cry from the traditional Queensbridge and Chi-town shout outs on similar releases, he name drops the local venues and abandoned stadiums: “I’m somewhere between the Silverdome and Phoenix Center”. The track also confronts the problems facing Michigan, namely the metropolitan Detroit area. He sympathizes with the current declining automotive market while referencing the ‘70s economic boom and early climax that followed a decade later—one of the causes of its eventual downfall.
It’s instances like this that make One’s brand of conscious hip hop so much more affecting and powerful than his contemporaries. Recently, where artists like Common and Talib Kweli rap about the problems in hip hop and why the genre should be respected again, One returns to backpacking’s roots, truly confronting the social ills that he encounters: racism, poverty, etc.
In that vein, much of R.E.B.I.R.T.H. deals with issues much larger than those relegated to the Detroit area. The aforementioned confrontational “War” features a spoken intro about the lack of police action in poor, African American neighborhoods before slamming into the chorus, “You know what this means? / War!” A track about vigilante justice, it is far from the boisterous claims of thug-rappers like 50 Cent but carries a sadistic, violent ambivalence—this is a problem some people live with but may not ultimately despise as much as hegemonic culture suggests they should, a coming-of-age aspect of city life. Similarly, “House Rules” is a track about drug dealing that doesn’t necessarily glorify it, positing rather as a way to make a living.
Aside from the occasional misstep (the dull, plodding production on “Headlines”, the repetitive chorus of “Smash”) R.E.B.I.R.T.H. is arguably one of the best conscious hip hop albums of the last several years, all of this coming shortly after the death of One Be Lo’s greatest contemporary. But as this disc shows, Dilla’s sound lives on. And One Be Lo is raising Detroit from the ashes.