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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
+ Giuseppe Ielasi - Giuseppe Ielasi
+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
+ Barbara Morgenstern - The Grass Is Always Greener
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+ Peaches - Impeach My Bush
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+ Klee - Honeysuckle
+ The Court & Spark - Hearts
+ TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
+ Awesome Color - Awesome Color
+ Jenny Wilson - Love And Youth
+ Asobi Seksu - Citrus
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+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
+ Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope
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+ Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain
+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
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+ Boris - Pink
+ Deadboy And The Elephantmen - We Are Night Sky
+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
+ The Red Krayola - Introduction
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+ American Princes - Less And Less
+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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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.

by Michael Lach

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