By now, those familiar with One Be Lo have heard the hype. “Extra fuckin’ terrific”, wrote Ego Trip co-head Chairman Mao in the December 2004 issue of XXL of Lo’s official full-length solo debut, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (Sounds of Nashid Originate Good Rhymes and Music). The superlatives were understandable, given the superb reputation Lo established with his previous group Binary Star (with which he went under the moniker One Man Army). They have also proven appropriate and accurate, given the tremendous growth and talent Lo exhibits on S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M..
The album is admittedly a curious success, because it conjures the most remarkable qualities of a sonic past. S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. adheres to the tenets of the “Golden Age” of underground hip-hop: loop-based production filled with jazz-inflected samples; deft and dexterous rhymes, characterized by equal parts braggadocio and self-reflection; and that I Used to Love H.E.R. nostalgia for the true Golden Age. Yet, in spite of S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.‘s heavy reliance on music modes from a decade ago, Lo brings a remarkable clarity of vision and a contemporary sense of urgency that makes the album a standalone body of work.
Lo’s use of the familiar allows him to elucidate his messages. Fortunately, he does not sacrifice any of his frankness in the process. S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. opens with a fat, blaring horn fanfare, booming bass, and thuggish chorus chants, but the first strains of Lo’s nasal delivery stands apart and quickly establishes a lighter tone for the album: “This apple’s hard to the core, this ain’t about metaphors / Given the spiritual war, we all a part of it”; tough rhymes over hard knocks. Although Lo frequently cites KRS-One as an influence, Lo’s approach to critique is less proselytizing than conversational. He engages his audience by inviting them. Even after his battle-happy verses on “enecS ehT No kcaB”, he adds a friendly postscript, “Even when I’m dissin’ you, I’m bein’ sincere.” His confident yet reflective approach is in line with the ‘new’ underground, as outlined in the aptly titled, “The UNDERground.” “You supported me when I only had a 12” (The Underground) / It’s all about the skills not the sales switch (The Underground)”, Lo says in praise of loyalty and humility. Though in the second chorus he adds, “If you blow here, you can blow anywhere (The Underground) / Records sellin’, self-made millionaire”, updating the undie artist image from starving to hungry, from passive to active. Certainly, the ideas here have been in place for a while; PE wasn’t trying to roll Motel 6 style while touring with U2. It’s just ok to say it now.
As Lo taps into hip-hop’s weltanschauung to build on his established audience, he also makes clear his critical view of the American zeitgeist and uses this perspective to give S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. its cohesion. Lo flips the Black Moon line “Who got da props?” on “Propaganda” to probe media manipulation and societal mob mentality. Lo uses familiar language and images to bring the listener in, but juxtaposes disparate ones to make his connections:
So many programs you watch on the sofa
But the real programs sit on top of your shoulders
Remote control your brain with all of this entertainment
Cable channels basic, you plug you in with the Matrix
Face it, even cartoons and PlayStations
Xbox, target your tots with X ratings
Worse than Hollywood with that hidden agenda
The propaganda inserts didn’t get censored
Same reason magazines show the homicide view
To desensitize you, so nuthin’ surprise you
Portray the victim as those who victimize you
Despise you, religious extremes to terrorize you
Everywhere you go is the same old news, right?
And everything I mentioned get controlled by the Jews, right?
Freedom of press but if you try to confess
That’s like a hungry fat man throwin’ steak in a food fight
As individual ideas, Lo’s subject matter is not new. However, he fuses them seamlessly in an artful and def manner. Though Lo’s words have been spoken before, they are still pertinent. Hence, samples ranging from Malcolm X and Dick Gregory to Bill Cosby and Sergio Mendes ground the album in the past, an era of activism that has been romanticized ad nauseam, but the insistent call to arms brings the music up to speed. S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. is not years late, it has been years in the making.
Contrary to his new alias, the MC/producer naturally known as Nashid Salaiman seeks to step his game up with S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. While his previous work with Binary Star was exemplary, filled with catchy songs and battle-worthy lines, he has excelled past the past; never before has he exhibited such concentration and focus on an entire album. S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. is however both a personal achievement (his new distribution deal allows his album to be marketed and sold though mainstream markets, such as MTV and Tower Records) and an artistic landmark. While there is too much of a good thing—the album is almost 80 minutes long, each song as dense with text as the next—S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. rocks readily, steadily, and heavily. The album will undoubtedly usher in a new set of possibilities and opportunities for Lo, but the listener should be warned: the trip is on his terms. Sit back; now, discuss.