Released: May 25, 2005
Common’s sixth studio album, Be, should serve as a reminder to hip-hop aficionados that the genre does not need to be dark or grimey in order to be insightful or inspiring. Working with his close friend and, at the time, rising superstar, Kanye West, Be is a return to much missed form for the seasoned Chicago rapper. Common sounds like he’s rediscovered the joy in his music and has shaken off the chains that seemed to hold him down on his rather disastrous previous project, Electric Circus. Even as he explores themes like poverty and overcoming adversity, the energy in his voice and the lyrical spring in his step belie Common’s love for his art. He is complemented by West in the prime of his soul-sampling phase – indeed this album sounds very much like a mid-point between the latter’s The College Dropout and Late Registration. For once though, West’s production doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, steal the album’s thunder. There is a fiery ambition in the Common we see on this album but tempered by wisdom and maturity; when he talks about overcoming adversity and fighting through the tough times, he sounds like the real deal, like a man with first-hand knowledge of what it is like to pull yourself out of a slump.
If Be were to be given an alternative title, it would very likely be ‘The Rebirth of the artist named Common’. It can’t be stressed enough just how reenergized and rejuvenated the veteran Chicago MC sounds on this project, especially compared to his obvious discomfort and unfamiliarity on Electric Circus. In the past, Common’s lyrical strengths lay largely in his ability to create metaphor and imagery, and in his ability to deliver these with his natural flow. On Be, he opts for a different, more direct approach. He speaks to his listeners directly, encouraging and stirring them but more importantly, he has simplified his rhyme schemes and lyrical structure to shorter verses and humble puns and wordplay, with punchlines sprinkled with humour and canny references. The end result is that the album sounds lyrically unassuming and ends up being all the more accessible for it – there is never a point in which you think that Common is trying to impress you with how clever he is, or that he is talking down to you. Instead, it feels like a refreshingly honest conversation in which he relates stories of success despite struggles.
Behind Common’s free and easy rhyming, however, lies an intensity as well, an element best brought out by the second of the album’s twin engines – Kanye West caught right in the middle of Yeezy season. Fresh from the success of The College Dropout, ‘Ye continues to consult his staggering collection of soul samples, this time lightening the mood and replacing some of the heavier instrumentals that he opted for on his own debut album with lighter melodies befitting this album’s themes. The result is a match made in heaven; Common’s familiarity with West both as a person and as an artist results in an absurd chemistry, an alignment of rhyme and production rarely seen outside of long-time collaborators. Of special note is the album’s opening track ‘Be (Intro)’ which even a decade later endures as one of West’s best produced tracks.
Above and beyond its technical qualities though, Be stands out in the genre for being unabashedly optimistic. It is uplifting both in its lyrical message and its light, melodic production, refreshing in its resolute step away from the oppressive reminders of street violence and death. This is the album for the man and woman who are down deep in the doldrums and need a gentle hand to help them up but it is also Common’s defiant message to the industry: he still has red hot bars, don’t count him out yet.
|Be (Intro)||Kanye West||5.0|
|The Corner||Kanye West||4.0|
|Love Is…||J. Dilla||3.0|
|Chi City||Kanye West||5.0|
|The Food||Kanye West||5.0|
|Real People||Kanye West||4.0|
|They Say||Kanye West||3.0|
|It’s Your World||J. Dilla||3.0|