Common, from Chicago's South Side, has long been a hip-hopper on the fringe. With enough credibility to run with anyone, and a few songs (like "I Used to Love H. E. R.," his wistful reflection on hip hop from 1994's Resurrection) that will stand the test of time, he's always been a bit too self-conscious, too thinky, and too prone to the big statements to make the top of the charts. His gravelly voice and knack for wordplay enabled him to come close a few times, but he's never really hit it big.
Enter The College Dropout. Without changing the core of Common's message or style, fellow Chicagoan Kanye West is all over Be. As he shortens the sound the whole album is only 42 minutes in duration he punches up the hooks. Now, the tunes are catchy, the beats are warm and percussive, and the songs hold together in much more manageable pieces. The title track opener, which begins with a warm string bass and builds to a simple orchestral hook supported by piano fills, sets the stage perfectly short, catchy, propulsive, and focused, all while supporting Common's reflections about his forefathers and future.
And there's a delightful sense of place that pervades the whole album not
only with frequent references to Lake Michigan and Chicago neighborhoods like
Stony Island, but in the scenes and sounds as well. On "The Corner," the venerable
Last Poets provide a strong sense of history, complete with street corner voices.
On "Chi City," the simple scratching and old soul samples evokes a
early-'70s soul sound celebratory without being crazy, warm without getting
hot. In Chicago, it's the perfect summertime album. For the rest of the world,
it's just great.
There's still some cornball stuff that can only make me think that Common has some growing up to do: lines about looking in his daughter's eyes for inspiration are just more appropriate on Hallmark cards. His father's poetry on "It's Your World" is too much: as he lists any number of careers that youngsters can pursue, I can't help recalling such saccharine pap as Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All." You can bet it's being played at every 8th grade graduation party on the South Side of Chicago this summer.
"I write freedom songs for the real people," Common says in "Real People," and while it's not freedom as Bob Marley or Public Enemy would have thought about it, that doesn't make it less important: it's the freedom that comes from being centered in place and family. He doesn't rap about forever, just right now which is why even if Be's raison d'être isn't about identity, it's about grounding. Common finds it in the beats, rhymes, and life of the South Side of Chicago. Chances are, you won't find yours there, but a close listen to Be will bring you a few steps closer, regardless.