(Geffen; 2005)

By Aaron Newell | 15 June 2005

I’m going to start off by saying there’s only one shit song on this record, and it’s only shit because I’m a cynic who finds overwrought songs about “LOVE” (“I Need Love”'; “Love is Beautiful”; “I Love to Eat”;“It’s That Love Love, Love”) stupid. Like, ok, J Dilla’s celled-in Urban X-mas Carol beat doesn’t help much, but Com, dude, you’re subjecting people to this?

How beautiful love can be!
On the streets love is hard to see!
It’s a place I got to be!
Lovin’ you is lovin’ me!

If that doesn’t strike you as particularly quite shit, then imagine a miniature chorus of nasal-clogged Commons singing it over chords that Oprah may or may not have executive produced, to the tune of what “Happy Birthday” probably sounds like backwards and upside-down. And with stilted, muted drums. And with ‘grassroots rap’ like: “Yeah! You know what love is! Even found it on the ground where the thugs live!”

And while “Love” should be inexcusable, Be is, in spite of it, a wholly solid, and (after three weeks’ listening) untireable record. And this fact surprised the hell out of me, and did so in slow, gradual, increments. So now I’m in the awkward position of explaining something equivalent to “Oh my God, a glacier just crushed my house over the past three years!” or “You know, I never saw Kells’ kiddie sex charges coming, honest” (while, in the background, Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nuthin but a #” plays loud --- you know, the single from her debut album, the one she recorded around the time she was married to Kelly, right around her 15th birthday, when the only things in her closet should have been stretch pants and Reebok Pumps…). See, Be creeps up on you (like, I would assume, is R Kelly’s practice). The cynic will find his/her reasons to hate whittled away with repeated listening, which is quite easy to accomplish since Kanye’s beats are --- and you know this kind of gush kills me --- not bad at all, really.

There is no mistaking: Com’s a grown-ass man now, lending dollars, selling soul by the jewel case. With that comes some reflection, confessionalism, and, usually a fair amount of hokeyness and preachery. Fortunately, unlike KRS-ONE (sadly), Common has generally adapted well to his wrinkles, even being so secure as to stage an oft-humourous neo-soul parody album (Electric Circus), lugubriously passing it off as an official release (Ed.: Apologies, reader, no one’s had the heart to break the truth to Newell yet). And he does the grown man shit well. Be is a fiction-spun memoir of sorts, but never beats you over the paperboy cap with the past. And, surprisingly importantly, whoever laid out the tracklist did an amazing job, juxtaposing Com’s musings on romance in such a way as to make you think about --- and go back to --- the record after it’s over.

The “Intro” features a stand-up bass plucked with the same possession as, but a little less malice than, Tribe’s “Buggin Out” lick. Instead of pure evil (ie “Phife”), Kanye brings in some cartoon keys and a beautiful soul-string sample. West’s drum kicks hit right where the bassline changes direction, and the rhythmic impact, although subtle, is a thing to behold. The track serves as Com’s hypothesis to the study that the rest of the record undertakes: watch the quick shift here from pessimistic global grandeur, to his church pew seatmate, to a more positive, personal world outlook, all in seven lines:

Bush pushin lies / killers immortalized / we got arms but won’t reach for the skies / waitin for the Lord to rise / I look into my daughter’s eyes / and realize I’mma learn through her / the Messiah / might even return through her / if I’mma do it / I’mma change the word through her.

If you can say that this line demonstrates how Common’s residual negativity comes out in the album’s wash, the rest of the record is an equally-convincing laundering of emotions and situations, strategically arranged.

“The Corner” is the ‘plight’/‘origin’ song; a reminder of historical obstacles that still exist despite Jesus Walking and half of Black Star becoming a Douglas Adams character. It’s pure grit, which comes through in the MC’s lagging cadence, hot sauce flow, and lazy syllables that even miss the hits of West’s stoned break, which itself seems to lag in order to catch down with Com (and which, to Kanye’s credit, contains some expertly-incorporated rhythmic conversation bites throughout the loop, to boot). The theme is best summed on the hook: “I wish I could give you this feeling…dying just to make a living."

From this “ain’t a thang changed” jump-off we go directly to the other end of the spectrum. “Go” contains no whiff of beer bottles in the street, nor any images of Last Poets huddled around an alleyway barrel-drum garbecue. To think outside the CD for a minute: “Go's" pristine Ikea-catalogue video provides a telling, direct contrast to “The Corner's" imagery, and finds Com musing on his version of luxury which is, summarily, “Body of a dancer” and “Mmm, I got to pause when I / think about her in them draws” (was Ice Cube the only guy quaint enough to rhyme the word “panties?"). West’s slick chords and double-hits drums (and Com’s matching, precise cadence - sometimes to the point where you’d think Kanye re-laid the drums after the vocals were recorded) couldn’t be a further cry from “The Corner”’s rickety dust funk. And we know from “The Corner” that ain’t no mansion in the woods in the hood. So what’s going on?

With hustling-to-live in one ear, and a beautiful bi-curious girlfriend in a country house with panoramic windows in the other, the listener’s conflict irons out as Be moves from its luxury-sex-rap memoir to “Faithful." Over a Stevie Wonder harmonica and gospel chords --- another far cry from the slick whispers of “Go” --- Common gets easy-preach about settling down and becoming the proverbial ‘real man’ (again, this directly after superstar deluxe freaknik ’05, which was directly after “brothers just tryin ta eat right”). While his values might, to some (i..e. ‘women’), seem a little misplaced (“might have got a little head / but I wasn’t really cheatin”), Common miraculously produces an holistic anti-misogynist statement: “lady you a blessing and my best friend…I gotta be faithful to the end.” And, when the listener recalls that “Go” was always set as a fantasy about a past relationship, the pattern sinks in: three songs in and he’s all growed up, and musically documenting the experiential sum of his career to date. From rags, to riches, to family, and all with a sense of humour: “Yeah, I was bad, but not as bad as Eric Benet”. Had KRS recorded it, he would have had to call this record Been. But Common’s persuasive capacity for reflection is his paycheque: everyone loves an honest diary with a hot beat.

With the scene set, we move to the man’s current concerns. Over a tobasco-soul vocal loop, “Testify” sees Common telling a tale of devious betrayal. He quickly moves to “Love” --- which he shouldn’t ever have --- but since he did, it bears mentioning that if “Go," “Faithful," “Testify” and “Love” rounded out side A of a tape, we’d be left with a focused and coherent attempt at addressing the gamut of complex romantic relationships, which is a noble cause for a pop-rap record in 2005 when the other C’on rapper assesses relationship complexities on how likely it is that the girl will squeeze off his condom in order to dip into his child-support mutual fund (you know he has one, you just know).

The rest of the record is, essentially, Resurrection-style posturing combined with the slicker production of Like Water for Chocolate; each subsequent beat pushing a borderline-blaxploitation feel, a feature that ends up backloading Be with its most compelling, raw, and replayable tracks. From “Chi-City” through to “They Say, Kanye’s dirty metro horns and contemplative keys are ceaselessly brilliant, and Common burns through each song (even the one-take Dave Chappelle version of “The Food” is vocally impressive, even if its inclusion is probably the result of paid advertising and/or product placement).

Sure, there’s no “Watermelon” or “Communism”, but Be’s wit presents on a grander scale than a dependence on sprinkled, chucklable oneliners would allow. After engagingly re-establishing “where he’s at” on the album’s first side, Common turns around and comments on where we’re at on side B. With Kanye’s Diddy impersonation being doubly justified by a fantastic verse on “They Don’t Know” and beats that compliment Common’s themes perfectly, what initially smacked of a bumps-du-jour cash-in ‘comeback’ comes out as an extremely worthwhile, and relevant, career statement. And as much as I’d like to “play God” and cut “Love” from the tracklist, if it weren’t for Common’s periodic tendency to hoke, which indicates that deep down he’s a big, gushy, caring, twill-pant wearing ghetto granola, Common’s “hard” tracks wouldn’t mean half as much, or be nearly as poignant.

The bottom line is that while, at times, he may wear his romance on his sleeve, at the bottom of it all Be is still most dedicated to h.e.r.: “What your rhyming for / Son of Sanford…to get rich? I smack a n!gga like you / and tell him Rick James, bitch.