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Common Wealth

Chicago’s Underground Storyteller Returns With a Potential Classic in Be

FAR FROM ORDINARY: Common’s new album Be could be a masterpiece.

By Jason Torres | Posted 6/8/2005

First and foremost, reviewing Common’s new joint is a friggin’ headache. At this point, damn near everybody—from The Source to Vibe to XXL, as well as everyone who copped the leaked bootleg, like, two months back—is calling Be a classic. As in, Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die and Nas Illmatic classic. But even if you deliberately avoid reading any reviews and to try to give this album an unbiased listen, very quickly into it, you’re thinking, Damn, this shit is hot.

“I’m back like a chiroprac with B-boy survival rap,” Common lashes on the bumpy, drum-heavy anthem “Chi City.” “This ain’t ’94, yo, we can’t go back/ The game need a makeover/ my man retired, I’ma take over.”

Kanye West handles the bulk of the production, holding up his end of Be’s hype—there’s his signature soul sample-heavy production, melodic loops, and array of drum kits—by providing a variety of good canvases for Com to floss his versatility. And not once is the word “crunk” uttered. Common swings from ghetto commentator in the mainstream-approved “The Corner” to storyteller in “Testify,” where he paints a clever and intense courtroom drama over Kanye’s not quite played-out but getting close sped-up R&B loop: “For years she been through scuffle and fights, while he tried to hustle that white/ up all night wondering if he’s alive, seeing him tried she bubbled inside.”

No matter what you may think of Kanye—conceited, overrated, played out, whatever—Common needed him. More than that, hip-hop needed Kanye to team up with Common. Common is still regarded as an underground sort of backpack rapper, a genre that isn’t radio-friendly, not to mention complete kryptonite to the 106th and Park audience that actually buys albums. Whereas most backpackers are doomed to a life of college radio, Kanyeezee linked up with Roc-A-Fella and delivered commercial hits for Jigga with the same backpacker sensibility, albeit a Gucci backpack. He is the bridge between platinum sales and the hot-but-not-ready-for-prime-time Rawkus rapper.

The results are everything you’d expect. Lyrically, Be is Common flaunting crazy adaptability, easily slipping in and out of moods. He’s chilled-out on “Go!,” a sensuous tale about pursuing a sexy woman over a silky, up-tempo groove. He’s contemplative on “Faithful,” “Love Is,” and the introspective “It’s Your World (Parts 1 and 2),” in which he walks us through his memories: “My mother gave birth but she really never had me/ left to the ’hood to play daddy.”

Throughout, Be is Common in top form. And maybe we want to like it. Admit it, when Common dropped his killer “Get ’Em High” verse on Kanye’s The College Dropout Grammy-winning debut and the rumors began swirling that that the veteran would soon team up with his Windy City homeboy for a full album, you know you were excited. You were hoping he’d come back and rescue the game from the diamond-ringed clutches of, well, any wack commercial rapper. That’s just how Common is. This cat has earned his stripes. He’s made certified classic songs (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”). And, when he had to, he handled his business in the very underrated battle with Ice Cube (“The Bitch in Yoo”).

But Common has a few chinks in his armor. He was never classified as hard, but after a very public love affair with Erykah Badu, he seemed to go, well, soft(er). Common the MC was replaced by Common the artist: The dude in the beanie rocking flip-flops who isn’t afraid to step out of the box artistically. Which is all good, but c’mon—Electric Circus?

Now, three years on, and it’s hard to remember when Common sounded this good. He has one of the dopest narrative flows in the game, and the evolution of his style matches the production’s old school/modern vibe perfectly. Every song is near flawless, if a little too much Kanye here or there. Perhaps the coolest thing is that Be may spark new barbershop debates. Forget the old arguments about whether or not hip-hop is dead, when it died, who killed it, whether or not rap is hip-hop, whatever. Get ready for a new discussion, one about whether or not Common belongs in some top-five-alive lists. For real.

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