Common :: Be
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
"Leave rappers with careers and they faith over
It's a war goin on, you can't fake bein a soldier
In the basement, listenin to tapes of Ultramagnetic
to the fact our messiah's black
I turn the TV down, we can take it higher than that
I wonder if these whack niggaz realize they whack
And they the reason that my people say they TIRED of rap"
The paradox of artistic greatness is that it often walks a fine
line between being accessible and being outright dismissive of
the audience that would access it. To even the most critical
observer it can become hard to discern whether an artist's
high self-opinion is because they recognize how far above their
contemporaries they are, or whether it's just a shield to ward
off proper analysis of their work. After all the artist can
always claim the audience "doesn't get it" or "can't comprehend
the meaning" if they respond negatively to it. The truth is
far more subtle though - the audience does get it, but they
just don't get what's supposed to be so great about it. An
unrefined Beavis & Butthead style "this sucks" evaluation
can at times be much more piercing and accurate than any
amount of interpretation through inspection and criticism.
Common's "Be" has multiple layers of involvement in this debate
although the essential truth may in fact be as simple and direct
as the album's title. As an artist Common's work has been both
highly praised and
Most observers will agree that Common has over the years evolved
from a gimmick rapper to a witty wordplay artist to a thought
provoking hip-hop intellectual, but at that point agreement ends.
Some think his progression has resulted in ever greater heights
of achievement, while others find he's distanced himself so far
from his underground rap roots he sounds disconnected and lost.
Common is himself a hip-hop critic, as the lyrics above cited from
"Chi-City" show well. While other people debate about whether
or not Common is dope or whack, he himself is questioning the
direction hip-hop music has moved in. "So many raps about rims
surprised niggaz ain't become tires," quips Common. What does
Common propose to do with these inferior MC's? "I slap a nigga
like you - and tell him RICK JAMES BITCH!"
The reference to Dave Chappelle is not a coincidence, as the
version of "The Food" on this album is Com and Kanye West performing
the track live on his show. Kanye himself figures heavily into
the evaluation of this album as he produces 9 of 11 tracks,
leaving only "Love Is" and the closer "It's Your World" to DILLA.
As a result the album has a very soulful sound, from the lilting
saxophone of "Real People" to the Leon Moore and Temprees samples
on "The Corner" to the tinkling keys and harmonious melodies of
"They Say," on which Common describes himself as "the black pill
in the Matrix." Is it his goal to wake us up from an artificially
induced sleep? "The richest man ain't necessarily the nigga
with dough." While that may on one hand be a pearl of wisdom, it
can also be called an obvious truth. The track "Faithful"
illustrates this problem. While the "what if God was a woman"
question Common proposes is an interesting philosophical and
religious debate, it's one many of his listeners will have had
back in high school or their freshman year of college. While
Common decries the rap industry for their fetish for bling-bling
and flossy cars, he himself is at times guilty of espousing
unoriginal or unprovoking concepts.
Although the mere act of being a snob about your art doesn't
by definition make you great, in fairness to Common he DOES
operate on a higher level than many of his contemporaries.
The resurrection of Common's "Be" is to be found on songs like
"The Corner," where he observes the ebb and flow of life in the
inner city with an unjudgmental eye. It is here that Common is
at his most profound, fulfulling the role for hip-hop Chuck D
once envisioned as being "the black man's CNN." Common also
shows his penchant for being clever on "Testify," a tale of
a court hearing with a surprising plot twist worthy of Law & Order.
Common's naturally smooth flowing voice is a pleasure to listen
to, making even the times when he is overreaching his grasp that
much more tolerable in comparison to lesser peers. It's on "They
Say" that Common says it best: "They say dude think he righteous;
I write just to free minds from Stony to Riker's." When Common
works with the right producer - and let's be clear that Kanye
West is a much better match for him than ?uestlove was - and
keeps his self-aggrandizing nature in check (he compares himself
to Jesus Christ at one point, and it's a bit much) Com is
indeed the dope rapper he claims to BE.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: May 24, 2005