Following the luke-warm reception of 2003’s love-it-or-hate-it Electric Circus, Lonnie Lynn aka. Common decided to make a return to the same unbridled conscious rap that he perfected better in past albums such as Resurrection and Someday It’ll All Make Sense. Where Electric Circus was daringly melded hip-hop with nostalgic 1960s psychedelica and contained many a producer (Neptunes, ?uestlove) and guests (Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, that guy from P.O.D.), Be is a stripped-down back-to-basics effort that finds producer-du-jour Kanye West at the production helm for the albums majority.
West’s production for the most part is probably the most pivotal aspect of this record as it shall be duley noted that in the past few years many of Common’s conscious peers have been suffering some sort of identity/creativity crisis: Black Eyed Peas and Talib Kweli have both gone pop for better or worse; Mos Def’s latest was massively unfocused and all over the map; and the Roots’ The Tipping Point was just plain unimpressive. Common, it seemed, was headed in the same direction yet Be demonstrates itself to be a strong collection of songs- an actual “album" if you will- one that can just be put on without skipping tracks (well almost, as I later determine). Much of this is due to not only to Common’s still-strong mastery of words and flows but also to Kanye’s production which demonstrates a very strong and potent 1970’s Philly soul vibe complete with graceful strings, slinky rhythms, and poignant vocal samples (sped up Kanye-style of course). Vibes of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and especially Tom Bell are peppered throughout the mix in a very blissful and refreshing manner. Though some might like to think that The College Dropout was a great record for West, Be may in fact be superior due to its great focus and attention to detail in applying the right beats for the right lyrics.
The best example of this mind-meld between Common and Kanye comes right at the start of the album with “Be (Intro)" as a lone jazzy acoustic bass is plucking at a solemn pace only to pick up into a quick and intense bassline that is soon layered with some very whimsy piano and strings that compliment the melody beautifully. Common that drops a very solid and confident verse, probably his best in years
“I want to be as free as the spirits of those who left
I'm talking Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef
Through death grew conception
New breath and resurrection
For moms, new steps in her direction
In the right way
Told inside is where the fight lay
And everything a nigga do may not be what he might say
Chicago nights stay, stay on the mind
But I write many lives and lay on these lines
Wave the signs of the times
Many say the grind's on the mind
Shorties blunted-eyed and everyone wanna rhyme"
Simple, short, and effective, the intro kicks right into the main single “The Corner"- another effective cut in which a gritty piano heavy beat sets the backdrop for some skillful and very alliterative rhyming that is contrasted with some great spoken word courtesy of the Last Poets. Be for the most part is littered with these great moments and the best comes with “Faithful" which utilizes a gorgeous female vocal sample against shimmering piano, strings, horns, and a talk-box guitar lick that oozes passion and feeling. With this Common deploys some of his most earnest lyrics in a long while. The opening lines are the most grabbing:
"I was rolling around, in my mind it occurred
What if God was a Her?
Would I treat her the same?
Would I still be runnin' game on Her?
In what type of ways would I want Her?
Would I want her for her mind
Or her heavenly body
Couldn't be out here bogus
With someone so godly"
“Testify" meanwhile features a vocal loop that is a measure twice of Common’s rapping resulting in an almost polyrhythmic feel. It also tells a great story of betrayal and grief. “They Say" meanwhile utilizes some great electric piano melodies that recall Hancock recordings of the mid-1960s over a static rhythm and a great verse by Kanye. “Chi-City" and “Real People" feature pure-1970s soul nostalgia with grooving trumpet melodies, jangly rhythms and woeful saxes. All of this is laid out over Common’s smooth baritone delivery that never seems to hint at losing momentum, as he roams the far corners of his mind and lets them flow into the mic.
However this album isn’t without any problems and though intended to be an album in which one just put on and let play, there are certainly a few moments in which fast-forward button is beckoned. Common always has a tendency to be a little too, well, mushy and Be contains a good share of Hallmark card moments. Go! is the most obvious example in which Common sexually fantasizes over a syrupy piano line and a loop of John Mayer singing the word “Go" over and over again (which is more than enough Mayer for me). “Love Is…" meanwhile is even worse as he stumbles lyrically on preaching of the merits of love. Lines like “Love is love" (well, duh) and “Love your Mother/ Love your Sister/ God is Love" reek of sap.
As well Common also automatically loses points for proclaiming that he’s “Rick James, bitch" in “Chi-City" (though he almost redeems it for name-dropping Utlramagnetic MCs). Speaking of Chappelle, another fault for the album is “The Food", which isn’t given a studio treatment and is just pulled directly from his performance on the said show. It’s a great song and all, but the live cut kind of ruins the flow of the album and would’ve been certainly nice to see a studio working of it.
Yet despite these few shortcomings, Common (and Kanye West) have been able to deliver a very graceful and moving album that is hard to come by these days in the world of commercial hip-hop. Be is one of those rare occasions where the album cover kind of speaks for the content (despite the oft-used phrase). Looking at the golden portrait of the beaming MC it can be stated that yes, it’s a very simple album but a joyous and fun one at that.