It's been 10 years since Common's "Be."
There are few artists who can make seriously great hip-hop albums that are captivating and cohesive for the entirety of their duration. However, those who do understand the medium do it really, really well, time and time again.
Common is one of those artists, no question. Every time he steps in the booth to record a full LP, he crafts a journey. His first two albums were backed by No I.D.’s production before turning to Jay Dee (J Dilla) for most of the beats on Like Water For Chocolate. Common and Dilla united again on his psychedelic freakout album Electric Circus, on which he experimented with soul, rock, jazz, and electronic sounds.
Somewhere amongst these releases, a young Kanye West emerged as the game’s hottest new producer. The two Chicagoans linked up for a classic album that was released 10 years ago today: Be.
As the title would suggest, Be is somewhat of a simple album. The beats are handled by Kanye and the rhymes almost exclusively by Common. In a genre that relies heavily on "the feature," this stripped-down approach is risky, but when you have so much to say, it can work wonders.
"I want to be as free as the spirits of those who left / I'm talking Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef."
On the opening title track, Common aims to be of the greats, but he doesn’t want to be the next Big Meech or Larry Hoover, instead looking up to Malcom X and John Coltrane. The mention of Yusef, a childhood friend of Common's, levels the playing field and tells the listener that you don’t have to have a Malcom X-level impact to be great. These are the words that kick off Be, an album about hope, self-improvement, and real life.
"Waiting for the Lord to rise, I look into my daughter's eyes / And realize I'ma learn through her / The Messiah, might even return through her / If I'ma do it, I gotta change the world through her."
MCs are no stranger to showing love for their children, but Common finishes "Be" with one of the most heartfelt, not to mention sonically gorgeous, nods to one's offspring that has ever been pressed to wax. His daughter could be a messiah, or at least have that level of impact. If you take a step back and look at the messiah as a restoration of God-like behavior amongst mankind, then that works as well. Common knows, "If I'ma do it, I gotta change the world through her" because his daughter is the future, and whatever values he instills in her will carry on.
The intro leads to more profundity throughout the record. "The Corner" talks about the hardships of inner-city Chicago hood: "We write songs about wrong 'cus it's hard to see right." Kanye West on the hook, although not technically listed as a feature, it was an instant classic.
"Chi-City" is one of the more hardcore offerings, on which Common threatens to slap MCs who are just in it for the fame. The content isn't only about his immediate surroundings: On "Love Is," he meditates on the complex power of an emotion most rappers tend to shy away from, and "Testify" tells the engrossing story of a woman who frames her man for a crime she committed.
The album ends with "It’s Your World," a crowning moment of encouragement to the listener. Hip-hop rarely gets this spiritual, but Common's music elicits the same emotions of blues, gospel and soul. For a genre that constantly battles commercialism and consumerism, this is an ultimate moment for the art form.
Common's father, "Pops," closes the track with a stirring edict on how to live a life worth living:
"Be cautious of the road to college, takin' a detour through Vietnam or the Middle East
Be absent of wars at any past or present fought amongst themselves
Be visual of foreclosure over your shoulder while beggin'
A nation built on free labor for reparation, Be a cartographer
Be a map maker, be able to find Afro-American land
Search thoroughly it may be close to black land
Be amended 5/5ths, be amended 5/5ths human
Be the owner of more land than is set aside for wild life
Be cupid, to world government
Be found among the truth, lost tribe
Be at full strength when walking through the valley
Be not foolish as temporary king of the mountain top
Be a brilliant soul, sparkling in the galaxy while walking on earth
Be loved by God as much as God loved Gandhi and Martin Luther King
Be that last one of 144,000, be the resident of that twelfth house
While the album is top-tier lyrically, it was Kanye's production that helped make it an undeniable classic. Channeling his inner-Dilla, a more humble 'Ye was able to repurpose classic material by The Temptations and Marvin Gaye to create masterful beats.
The features are rare, but very meaningful. John Mayer's contributions to "Go" made the track a crossover sensation without the corniness that often plagues those types of moves (think Nelly and Florida Georgia Line). John Legend's hook on "They Say" paves the way for Kanye to drop some memorable lines, most charmingly: "But God don't ever give me nothin' I can't handle / So please don't ever give me records I can't sample."
Overall, Be is a demonstration of how positive hip-hop can be while maintaining its edge and its cool. It doesn't always have to be about money, women, sex, or drugs and, when those topics are mentioned, they can be referred to in a relatable manner. Common's always been at the forefront of "conscious rapping" ("some depict me as conscious / yeah I use my head"), and Be is exactly why. With help from a little-known Kanye West, the two crafted a rap album that could be played for the whole family, which can’t be said about most of the music that floats around this site.
On its 10th anniversary, give Be a spin. We could all use a little enlightenment.