In my neck of the woods, Common is affectionately called the “thinking man’s emcee.” Over here to many non hip-hop heads, he’s broken down to be a “more-consistent Nas” and a “more cerebral Jay-Z.” But such comparisons aren’t necessary. Common is simply Common. Ever since his 1992 entrance, with Can I Borrow A Dollar?,
he’s been revered as one of the more talented emcees of his time. Praised for his intellectual rhymes contributing to the advancement of conscious hip-hop in mainstream society, Common’s steadiness proved just as impressive as his lyricism.
His skills seemingly got sharper with each subsequent record, culminating in 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate, praised by critics and fans alike as Common’s magnum opus; the album that broke him into the mainstream without sacrificing an ounce of his artistic quality or integrity. 700k sold and a Grammy nom later, Common felt a little experimental and released the critically maligned Electric Circus. Barely selling 1/3 its predecessor, Common’s bizarre experimentation in sound alienated most of his fan base and appeared to be the signal of him blowing his one chance at mainstream success.
This is why many found Common’s joining forces with Kanye West to be an act of desperation; Common desperate to both achieve mainstream success once again and rectify, and/or apologize, for the obvious mistake that was his last album. But with Common’s last record a moment of brilliance (at least to me) and there being no obvious decline in his lyrical adeptness, that assumption seems furthest from the truth. Regarding the title, Common said that it refers to doing something extremely hard for any human to do; be yourself. It’s about being whoever you are, wherever you are. So BE isn’t so much a calculated career move as it is a natural progression for Common. It’s a back-to-basics return to form, with Common’s consistency firmly intact.
A listen to lead single, The Corner, proves that Common hasn’t lost his edge and that he hasn’t played the sell-out card like so many feared. Examining how the corner is the keystone of the ‘hood from 3 different angles, Common’s flow is as crisp and sobering as ever. Kanye’s production surprisingly loses much of its soul-gloss factor and adopts a harder, grimier sound, with a simple boom-bap arrangement fleshed out by the occasional soul-sample loop. The Last Poets’ cameo adds to the song’s cinematic imagery and confirms yet another effortless masterpiece under Common’s belt.
On the flip side, second single Go!, shows off Common’s more playful side. At Kanye’s admonition to, on the count of three,Ã¢Â?Â¦run back to your fantasy, Common does just that, reminiscing over some favored exploits with partners of the female persuasion. Those lyrics conjoined with Kanye’s rather simplistic, mellow backdrop, and ingenious vocal loop of John Mayer (!) uttering the title, creates one smooth, form-fitting foundation.
In fact, the entire album is a form-fitting affair, with all 9 of Kanye’s creations, and both of J. Dilla’s, gelling seamlessly with Common’s scholarly composed flow. From the smooth bass plucks, synth-key runs and vinyl strings encompassing Common’s expressions of how he longs to, amidst both the frivolous and valuable trappings surrounding him, just BE on the title track, to J. Dilla’s plaintive string/horn loop and simple drum taps supporting Common’s thoughts on just how far he’s come in life, and how far others didn’t, on It’s Your World, not once does any aspect of this album (lyrically, musically, conceptually) lose steam. Arguably, the strongest evidence of this would have to be the section of the album I dub the “love suite.”
After expressing the corporeal enjoyments of love on “Go!”, Common explores the concept a little further, starting with Faithful. Against a typically predictable, yet thoroughly soulful, smooth, and pleasant, Kanye soul-sampled, boom-bap arrangement, Common, with ad-libs from John Legend and Bilal (where the hell is your second album?!) mulls over the topic of fidelity and how would it apply to two interesting scenarios: a man tempted to cheat with his girl’s best friend and how much fidelity he’d practice if God were a woman.
The gripping lyricism exhibited here spills over onto and is amplified with the next track, Testify. Far from Common’s greatest storytelling moment, regardless, in just 2:36, he manages to construct the most cinematic record of the year. Detailing a courtroom trial that starts off with an innocent woman pleading her man’s innocence and exoneration and ends with an expected helluva twist, the clever sample looped throughout enhances the intensity of Common’s cadenced flow and makes the song’s execution that much more effective.
Love Is ends the suite with Common, against Dilla’s tranquil, soul-drenched backdrop, simply expressing his views of what love means to different people. The simple lyricism still contains enough depth and insight to garner repeated spins but shows how scaled-back and modest Common can be while imparting knowledge to his listeners.
Chi City is one of the most talked about records on the album. Against Kanye’s reliant boom-bap, Common proceeds to stealthily condemn all the professed emcees desecrating the name of hip-hop, with purported stabs at Nas, and does so with such a precise proficiency that it’s sure to leave you in awe.
Why the live, Dave Chappelle performance of The Food was included here over the studio version is a mystery, since the studio version is cleaner and has an extra verse. However, the live take doesn’t detract from the song’s appeal. The first Common/Kanye collabo on record, it sounds as if Common’s glib flow extolling the virtues of hustling and Kanye’s mellow boom-bap are tailor-made for each other. Maybe the live version was included to show how the initial performance was a sign of great things to come; i.e. this album. The live version equates prophecy fulfilled.
Real People ups Kanye’s production ante, with the boom-bap being sacrificed momentarily for live percussion and a jazzy horn loop. Common’s rhymes don’t have a solid concept but all seem to revolve around the actions and reactions of ‘real people’ to things in their environment. Another simple, less than 3:00 sonic testament to Common’s meeker, more unassuming lyrical tendencies.
They Say is the next-to-last finale and is Kanye’s final contribution. The boom-bap is back in top form, assisted by a gorgeous piano loop, an animated verse from Kanye and John Legend’s soulful crooning on the hook. Denouncing hearsay, among other things, is the arsenal Common uses to fill his lyrical chamber and as expected, he doesn’t fail to impress.
With BE, it seems that Common’s come full circle. From his modest beginnings, he slowly evolved in terms of quality, lyricism, and sound with each subsequent album, peaking in 2000 and then experiencing a granted ‘brilliant momentary lapse of sanity.’ And now he’s gone back-to-basics and constructed a classic album that follows the same formula which made him so revered in the first place. No hype, no pretense, no gloss, no gimmicks, no shticks, no filler. BE is nothing more than a honest look inside Common’s head and an honest interpretation of his surroundings when you look out through his eyes. Common successfully collaborated with Kanye without sacrificing an ounce of his creative soul to the mainstream devils. He’s not pandering for airplay or record sales here. He’s simply a man on a mission to be heard. And in the process, he’s created a brilliant album by adhering to the one constant that’s guided his entire career. Common made BE the only way he knew how.
By being himself.