I hope many people read this review, because it is truly depressing to me that One.Be.Lo is not universally recognized as one of the great emcees in the world. It certainly doesn’t surprise me, but it is sad nonetheless. Those who are familiar with his work as half of Binary Star might not be able to place him as an artist now due to his decision to change his name from One Man Army, but the fact remains that he is the same man who had a hand in creating one of the greatest underground albums ever made, and he has actually grown significantly since then as an emcee.
This record is a supplement to his first official solo album, “S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.,” which arrived earlier this year. Despite the fact that his official release is much more fully realized and complete, the music on “S.T.I.L.L.B.O.R.N.” is actually superior at times. There are twenty-seven tracks, many of which have both a unique and slamming beat and a different concept tackled by One.Be.Lo. The disc is hosted by DJ Scene, and luckily he is not enough of a vocal presence to be irritating while doing the usual mixtape vocal promotions. The majority of the songs are constructed concisely, with running times of under two minutes and wall-to-wall rhyming from One.Be.Lo and guests. Jake One laces the beat for the opener, “Dick Head Tracy,” a repetitive but enormously catchy backdrop for the rhymes that is both captivating and subduing at the same time. This effort ends up being one of the longest tracks on the disc, clocking in at four and a half minutes. There are several lengthier songs interspersed between the shorter cuts throughout.
The next three songs all clock in at approximately a minute each. “Ben Frank” has a straightforward but expertly constructed beat from Lo’s man Decompoze, one of twelve he provides throughout. As with any promising song of such length, a more extended version is sorely missed, but the snappy transition into “Lyrictricity” erases any memories of the previous track. Driven by a militant horn loop from Zhao, One.Be.Lo. shows why he is one of the best:
“Keep the current ’cause what I bring to the mic
Is like Benjamin Franklin with a string and a kite
Electrocute emcees who battle weak, wait a while
My flow is like death row, have a seat
Every sentence executed every time I said a verse
My frequency hits your measurements where it mega-hurts
Even with rubber gloves you still couldn’t touch it
Make sure you got it when I bzz-bzz bust it
You catch a heart attack I take the headphones off my ear
Put ’em on your chest and tell the room to ‘stand clear!'”
Battle-rapping has begun to take a lazier form recently simply due to the extent to which the topic has been explored. One.Be.Lo. recognizes that it will take a truly magnificent, original conceptual verse to set himself apart, and “Lyrictricity” is one of the examples of this. The nature of braggadocio in rap is relatively uniform, and so many artists have egos that stand in the way of creativity. In One.Be.Lo’s case, though, his ego and his left brain go hand in hand, and the result on “Lyrictricity” is pure heat that is unfortunately short.
Since this disc is a collection of leftovers and unfinished music, some of the longer songs seem labored in comparison to the more succinct offerings. A couple of tracks clock in at more than five minutes, which disrupts the pace set by so many shorter pieces. All of the music is quality, but the mixtape style creates odd situations in the tracklisting. “The Genesis,” for example, is a brilliant cut whose brevity is compressed even more by the songs on either side that are unnecessarily long. One.Be.Lo’s description of his first moments of hip-hop in the lunchroom is dwarfed by the extensive time spent on the songs surrounding it. This is a minor complaint, of course, because the record is dope from front to back with almost no exceptions. At times, though, just when the music starts to really move, a longer and more labored song slows the pace.
For those that have been keeping up with One.Be.Lo’s other material, “S.T.I.L.L.B.O.R.N.” will be an interesting companion to his official debut. Pete Rock slides through to remix “Deceptacons” with expectedly nice results. There are a couple of other remixes and a few original, less refined versions of songs that appeared on S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.” Obviously, the final versions are preferable, but their inclusion on this mixtape doesn’t hurt. Additionally, I would imagine that much of the new material found here probably was recorded in his sessions for the debut, but were never fleshed out into full songs or didn’t make the cut.
One.Be.Lo. is a truly exceptional emcee, and this fact shines through even on his unofficial material. He has a flow that nearly anyone would be jealous of, and he is completely real in the sense that he raps about things that are truly important to him, he is refreshingly creative, and he sugarcoats nothing. Those who have been lucky enough to catch one of his live performances, regardless of previous exposure to him, understand the passion that he exudes through the mic. This disc is not as complete or riveting as his solo debut, but at 27 tracks there will be something that you will find yourself replaying. The mixtape format hurts a bit because of formalities such as the previous song’s beat fading out in the opening moments of the next track. The more extensive guest list is detrimental as well because none of the featured artists even begins to match One.Be.Lo’s talents. This work is not flawless, but it never tries to be and it is damn entertaining all the way through. By the time “L.I.F.E.” arrives, I have faith that he will get the wide recognition he is owed. Until then, give this unrecognized legend a try, he will not disappoint.