GOOD Music/Geffen, 2005
What more can be said about Common’s Be? If anything, it represents immaculate poetry that’s wrapped in gospel under a hip-hop shell, with an outer layer of commanding beats that are made almost entirely by Kanye West. But on top of this, it represents a coming-to-terms type of hip-hop record. With Common, you have one of the best artists since the early 90s combining forces with the Kanye West of 2005, who at the time, was still going off of College Dropout and prepping for his sophomore opus Late Registration. The intriguing aspect of this is that it’s a melding of eras, almost as if Be itself is combining the best of both generations.
What’s more important than this however is the content behind the record. The themes and motifs spread throughout are commanding, and although they’re restrained both lyrically and musically, it simplifies things for the better. “They Say” is one of the strongest cuts, and here Common takes on negative gossip and backs his original underground roots. Here he attacks his desire for remaining true to his self while at the same time aiming for success. “They say a nigga lost his mind,” he opens. “But in the scheme of things I never lost a rhyme.” Later on in the song Kanye provides the middle verse, where he reinforces his status among hip-hop’s elite. “Ahh… The sweet taste of victory/ Go head and breathe it in like antihistamine/ I know they sayin ‘Damn, Yay snapped wit this beat!’/ Fuck you expect? I’ve got a history.”
Combing Be and looking for the chemistry between Common and Kanye isn’t hard, and this is essential when evaluating this record as a whole. If it’s not Kanye coming in for a feature, it’s him supplying a generation mixer of a beat, and if it’s not Common preaching, it’s Kanye throwing down old and classic Kanye bars. “Chi-City” mixes scratching and twirling funk strings over background horns and Common’s pushing intentions on industrialism (“It’s a war goin’ on, you can’t fake bein’ a soldier”). “The Food” swerves on a different track, which was featured on The Dave Chappelle Show, and focuses on southside Chicago (“He tryin’ to stay straight, the streets is bendin’ him”). And “Be (Intro)” serves more as a culmination of the record’s whole than a mere intro, with a plodding bass lead, a sample of Albert Jones and a synth lead that will later serve as a classic Kanye West “sound”.
The melding of the minds of an experienced Common and a breaking artist in Kanye West during most songs perpetuates Be as one of the better collaboration albums. However, two of the tracks feature contributions from the legend J Dilla.
On “Love Is…”, Jay Dee shoots twittering squeals and soothing orchestra melodies under Common’s views on love growing up as a child. “Yeah, you know what love is/ Even found it on the ground where the thugs live/ My man had to dig deep to find his/ Couldn’t sleep cause on the real he had five kids.” On the closer “It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2)”, Dilla dances all over the track, melding synchronizing samples and electro swells with live instrumentation. Serving as the record’s most significant track, “It’s Your World”‘s agenda is that no matter where you’re from, you can fulfill your dreams instead of remaining grounded.
The observations on Be are critical and commanding, but perhaps the most outstanding quality of this album is the Common/Kanye combination. If you think Black Star or Blu and Exile, you can easily equate the qualities of Be to groups like those, and even if Be is under Common’s name, it feels more like a joint project. Be is constructive and tight, and although this may come off as a flaw, it serves as one of Common’s best pieces of work. The addition of two Dilla produced tracks feels almost like a reward for such a brilliant mesh of tracks, and the wealthy spread of diversifying topics and truthful poetry bring everything in when looking at the teachings of hip-hop in general.
The first thing you hear on Common’s 2005 record, Be, is the strong note of a strung bass on “Be (Intro)”. This note quickly turns into a laid back, but determined walking bass line. Then you hear the drums, the hi-hats and the samples. The track is building and just when you think it can’t grow anymore, Common busts in with his melodic flow, “I wanna be as free as the spirits of those who left/ I’m talkin Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef.” Later on the same track he ponders what it would take to make a better world, “Waiting for the lord to rise/ I look into my daughters eyes and realize Imma learn through her/ The messiah might even return through her/ If Imma do it, I gotta change the world through her.” In my opinion, Common’s lyricism is unparalleled as he puts the plight of the corner into perspective. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to wonder about how progress could be made as he describes the strength of those whose lives revolve around the same corner. Additionally, Be is an example of a young Kanye West’s brilliance as he handled most of the production. This record is something to behold as it combines the rawness of a revolutionary hip-hop record with warm, inviting gospel grooves. If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Following the intro, Common removes himself from the hypothetical of change and takes you right into his lived experience on “The Corner.” With help from The Last Poets, Common describes life in the city, the presence of drugs, violence and greed. Not long after, Common is on another level, talking about faith and spirituality on “Faithful.” “I was rollin around, in my mind it ocurred/ What if God was a her?” That first line asks to think about religion, how we make sense of it and what it means to us. As we continue through the album, we learn about problems with materialism and the resilience of Chicago on “Chi-City”:
“A black figure…in the middle with chaos and gunfire/ So many raps about rims, surprised niggas ain’t become tires/ On the street you turn cold and then go screech/ I tell em ‘fuck em,’ like I do the police”
Included in all of this is an important moment in hip-hop history. The track, “The Food,” is taken from a performance Common did on The Dave Chappelle Show back in the early 2000’s. This is one of Kanye’s first official appearances in the world of hip-hop. Considering where Kanye’s career has ended up, it is a fun track to go back and listen to. Kanye does the hook:
“I walked in the crib, got two kids and my baby mama late (uh oh! uh oh! uh oh!)/ So I had to did, what I had to did/ Cause I had to get (duh-ough! duh-ough! duh-ough!)/ I’m up all night, getting my money right/ Until the blue and whites (po po! po po! po po!)/ Now the money comin’ slow, but at least a nigga know, slow motion better than (no-oh! no-oh! no-oh!)”
While every song is a work of art in itself, the final track, “It’s Your World (Parts 1 & 2)” is on another level. With the production of the legendary J. Dilla, this particular song runs for about eight minutes. It’s a true hip-hop opus. The beat knocks and the lyrics are out of control but this is not why it’s the best track on the album. It’s the best because Common brings the record full circle and discusses what it means to be. We hear kids shouting out all these different things they want to be. And then, the poetry kicks in. Through this, we learn about what it means to be. In this case, “to be” is an empowering message that is about existence. Be proud of who you are, be proud of where you’re from and be willing to work for change in the world. As the album concludes, “Be…eternal.”
“It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2)”
“The Food (Live)”