Prior to rapper-turned-actor Common‘s release of his fifth album, Electric Circus, in 2002, expectations for the album were sky high. Its predecessor, Like Water For Chocolate, was met with both positive reviews calling him a “great storyteller” and “a labor of love”, and impressive sales statistics. Common tried something new with Electric Circus, finding inspiration in other branches in the music industry, such as psychedelic rock. Unfortunately, Electric Circus was met with incredibly mixed critical and fan reception, and more-or-less flopped commercially. Selling just over 200,000 copies (in comparison: Like Water For Chocolate sold more than double that number). Critics praised Common‘s ambitious vision, but at the same time people felt he tried too hard in creating a new, unique style.
On Be, Common returned to his musical roots – soulful hip-hop with a message. Be was met with incredibly positive reviews, receiving an 8.6 from Pitchfork, 4 out of 5 stars on Rolling Stone, and 4 Grammy nominations. The album is almost solely produced by Kanye West, who exhibits some of his best work here: emotional and playful beats.
The album opens with Be (Intro), which immediately sets the tone for the album: Kanye delivering beautiful vintage instrumentals driven by obscure samples and chipmunk vocal excerpts, Common commenting on society and his environment with thought-provoking bars (“Shorties blunted-eyed and everyone wanna rhyme / Bush pushing lies, killers immortalized / We got arms but won’t reach for the skies“) and the old school tone that dominated the Midwest scene at the time.
The next song, The Corner, is about street corners in poor neighbourhoods. While it may sound corny; it’s not. Common goes in like he’d never strayed away from his typical raw and thoughtful way of rapping and honors the beat with incredibly complex rhymeschemes. The song switches between verses by Common, a hook by Kanye and spoken word by The Last Poets, that refer to the corner as their “Rock of Gibraltar“; a place of true freedom.
The mellow style of GO! is a huge difference from the other two songs, though it still fits within the album’s tracklist like a glove. GO! is the most popular song on the album, eventually making its way to a bigger audience as a single. The lyrics aren’t very Common-like; here he raps about a “bad uh“, having sex with a pastor’s daughter and doing doggystyle in the bathroom. What elevates the song from just another rap song however, is Common‘s clever wordplay (“Said I was bait for her to master / Little red Corvette, now she was faster“) and the beautiful, laidback beat.
On Faithful, a track about being faithful to God, Common brings up some very interesting concepts here, primarily the idea of God being a “she”. It’s a powerful sentiment driven by his wonder of how he would do things differently if God truly were a “she”. The sample of DJ Rogers‘ Faithful to the End gives the song a very sanguine vibe.
The next song, Testify, is personally one of my favourite songs ever. I’ve got a soft spot for songs with a twist (Dance With the Devil, Lola) and this song executes it’s twist in a wonderful way. The song is about a woman that has to testify, who at first, draws sympathy from the listener, as her partner is facing years in prison. After the verdict is read, the woman begins to laugh, as she was the one committing the crime, and her husband was merely set up for it. It’s a creative and initially shocking concept behind one of the album’s best cuts.
Following Testify is one of the two tracks not produced by Kanye; instead, J Dilla gets behind the boards on Love Is and delivers a beautiful, soulful beat that fits the general concept of the album perfectly. Common talks about love and how men weren’t supposed to show love in the hood. The power of love is something really special (“Seen the hardest nigga soften wit’ his homie in a coffin“). Love is a topic that’s been touched millions of times, and it’s easy to make a love-centred song sound preachy or hackneyed. Indeed, some lines are a bit cliché, like the usual “In the hood love we was told to run from / That same hood where the guns sung“, but they’re outweighed by some really powerful and meaningful lyrics such as “Love can free us, to it some more of us react as a slave / Funny, we love ’em more when they’re relaxed in a grave“.
Be is optimistic, playful and funny at times, but also serious, intriguing and harsh when needed.
Chi-City is a different beast, and is almost a sequel to I Used To Love H.E.R.; Common goes after rappers that weaken the game. Some of the best bars on here (in my opinion), include: “The game need a makeover / my man retired, I’mma takeover / tell these halftime niggas break’s over“, in which he references two songs from two of rap’s greatest icons (Halftime by Nas and Takeover by Jay-Z), who were publicly beefing at the time. A-Trak’s scratches lend the song an authentically dated sound, a crucial touch to an already excellent track.
The following cut, The Food continues the old-school trends established on. The song is about the struggles of raising a family in Southside Chicago. Kanye raps about selling drugs to keep his two children alive. The scratches and the catchy beat complement Common and Ye very well on this song.
Real People, perhaps the jazziest song on the album, is about being “real” through the presentation of a conscious critique of society (I wonder if the spirits of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie / watch me as the cops be tryna and pop and lock me / They cocky, plus they mentality is Nazi).
The next song, They Say is pointed at Common’s haters, talking about how he hasn’t lost his style at all and that he’s hasn’t lost his conscious; he still criticizes society and he still raps about the struggle in the hood. Kanye talks about the flipside of success, something he perfected in his 2010 record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. John Legend’s hook is beautiful and adds some diversity to the track.
The album closes with the 8-minute epic It’s Your World, produced by J Dilla. Here Common gives some serious positive vibes – he talks about staying true to yourself and that when you really want something, everything is possible. Common drops some beautiful, thoughtful lines, such as: “Her stepfather thought he was Ike, so her mother he strike / she got to like-minded niggas, who liked crimes and figures / doin’ white lines and liquor, see hard times had kicked her / in the ass, it used to be thicker”. After the beautiful verses by Common, kids are reciting what they want to be later in life (listen closely: one kid states that he wants to be a duck!) The album finally closes with a wonderful speech by Common’s father, referred to as ‘Pops’. Pops tells us to be, be the best we can, and finally, be eternal.
2005 was a great year for hip-hop music. M.I.A. dropped Arular, Kanye dropped Late Registration, DANGERDOOM put out The Mouse and the Mask and The Game released a classic of his own, The Documentary. It’s hard to find yourself a place in among these giants, but Common did it with Be. Be is optimistic, playful and funny at times, but also serious, intriguing and harsh when needed. The ringtone era (read: bland songs about making money and rocking gold chains) was at its peak in 2005, but Be managed to be a commercial success while still staying true to the game. It’s refreshing to hear songs from said era about struggles in the hood by an intelligent rapper with complex rhyme schemes and great wordplay, on an album that demonstrates the skill and versatility of a rapper in his prime, over some of Kanye‘s most gorgeous beats to date.
During an interview with SixShot.com back in 2005, Common explained what the concise title of the record represents: “I named it Be to be who you are, man, and be able to be in the moment and not try too hard. Be is another way of saying just do without trying hard, like I said, natural and be true to the core of who you are; and this album, I wanted to just be and not just go and exist as just an artist, not worried about the past.”
Be is not only an album, but also an ode to you – and every other person in the world – to strive to exist as the best person and truest embodiment of self that you can possibly be.
What do you think? Do you agree? Let us know what you think in the comments, and stream Common’s Be below.