Over the past fifteen years or more, the quality of most hip hop (as well as rock, R&B and pop) has gone down considerably. Most of what passes for rap these days is just recycled beats, watered-down pop choruses and a lot of negative, empty posturing. One of the major bright spots during this time, though, has been Chicago native Common, and this album, released in 2005, is his most focused, concise and entertaining record. Even the title is about as concise as you can possibly get.
Expertly produced by the talented but always-insufferable Kanye West (with two songs helmed by the late, great J Dilla), Be is strong from start to finish, and puts most other rap albums in the past decade to shame, and a lot of other releases, as well.
Kanye might not be the genius that he constantly reminds us he is, but he shows excellent taste in samples, and is clearly one of the most imaginative producers in today’s music scene. He, along with the sadly-missed Dilla, creates a soulful, melodic musical stew to which Common adds his considerable rhyming and verbal skills. Common proves in album after album that he is much more intelligent, thoughtful and “real” than all the cartoonish gangsta-wannabes out there who just perpetuate negative stereotypes and values, and endlessly flaunt their wealth. Hip hop could use more good men like Common, who hearkens back to the golden age of the genre, when De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were creating highly-inventive platters of wax. Then again, Common has been around since the early ‘90s, when he was going by the moniker Common Sense (shortened later in the decade), so he came of age during that era, and carries some of that spirit, if not the humor, into the present day. He does it without sounding like an anachronism, either.
Be was the follow-up to his wildly uneven, highly-criticized but fascinatingly adventurous 2002 release, Electric Circus, which had a strange, psychedelic Hendrix vibe at its core. Coming after the highly-lauded Like Water for Chocolate, though, it just seemed to puzzle most of his fans. Be seemed to mark somewhat of a retrenchment for him, yet it yielded absolutely nothing in the name of creativity. Kanye and Dilla simply brought Common back from the wilderness, and focused him, with often amazing results.
Picking out individual songs on Be is pointless – this album is better experienced by listening to it as a whole. Still, certain songs stand out; “They Say,” featuring a memorably-sung chorus by John Legend (one of the leading lights of R&B these days) is one highlight; “Testify,” featuring a great sample from Honey Cone (of early-‘70s “Want-Ads” fame) is another. “The Corner” benefits from an appearance by proto-rap legends The Last Poets, waxing nostalgic. “Faithful” finds Common struggling to stay faithful to his woman, but clearly determined not to blow his last chance at true happiness. Unlike most rappers, Common is not afraid of showing a more sensitive side to his personality (talking about finding love from within, for example), without coming across as a wimp.
Only the finale, “It’s Your World Part 1 & 2,” featuring an appearance by Common’s father (as on albums past), and poignant statements made by several school children, gets a bit overblown but still ends the album on a strong and touching note.
This was one of those albums that I listened to once or twice, at the time of purchase, and then filed away, without giving it much of a thought. Two years later, I pulled it out and listened again, and all of a sudden it hit me like an earthquake. How I didn’t see its greatness the first time around is a mystery. Once it hit me though, it became a frequent visitor to my car stereo – where it remains to this day. Some albums don’t reveal their greatness on first listen. This is definitely one of them.