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You probably don’t think much of Common these days. Maybe you don’t know who he is. Maybe the last time you heard him was the last time he penetrated the pop-culture zeitgeist—I’m referring, of course, to his decidedly forgettable verse on the last Jonas Brothers album. There’s also a chance you’re one of the few who watch him sling a six-gun on AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.”
But then again, maybe you’re like me. Maybe you remember when a Chicago MC named Lonnie Lynn burst onto the rap scene fully formed with both fire and intelligence, straight-talking but positive and flanked by the best producers in the game. Maybe you remember a little album called “Be” that rocked 2005. Back then, it seemed that Common was going nowhere but up, and “Be” was both a worthy step forward and an exciting signal of things to come. If we hadn’t been so focused on the future, though, then maybe we would have better recognized what was right in front of us. Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have forgotten that “Be” was the best hip-hop album of its decade.
In our age of minimalist, industrial machine-rap, “Be” is sonically refreshing, a handful of ear candy dripping with honey-sweet soul. Perhaps because his usual producer J Dilla—then battling lupus—was spending less time in the studio, Common turned to a fellow Chicagoan for help, an up-and-comer by the name of Kanye West. This was a Yeezy whose only solo album was “The College Dropout,” who still based his sound on syrupy, chipmunk-speed samples. West crafted every track like he had something to prove, filling the album with lush strings and fat boom-bap beats. Only two tracks lack the Kanye touch, but the vinyl pops and simple old-school drums of the J Dilla-produced “Love Is...” and “It’s Your World” fit right in with the album’s soft sepia tone.
Handpicked Marvin Gaye samples aside, it’s clear Common was feeling a tad nostalgic when he sat down to pen the album’s lyrics. His fascination with the past is present from the outset, when he raps, “I wanna be as free as the spirits of those who left / I’m talking Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef” over the short but soulful “Be (Intro).” There’s even a song-length nostalgia trip here, the spartan “The Corner.” Over a beat steeped in urban grit, Common paints a picture of a poor Chicago street corner, bringing in spoken-word legends The Last Poets to reminisce on the old days: “The corner was our magic, our music, our politics.”
And yet, while it may be strongly tied to history, the album never loses its grip on the here and now. Indeed, there’s little sentimentality in the line, “I wonder if the spirits of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie / Watch me as the cops be tryna pop and lock me.” Common uses the past to enhance a very real present, and Kanye falls right in step; on “Faithful,” a sped-up Faith Evans sample is slowly joined by—among others—Bilal and John Legend, riffing on the simple melody until uniting in glorious unison. The seamlessness, the blending of the present and the past, is a sign that the album is more than just a collection of soul samples—these are soul songs.
“Be” was the first hip-hop album I ever loved. It was refreshing to hear a rapper so thoughtful, so sensitive, even. I admittedly had little with which to compare—as a white kid basically rockin’ the suburbs for most of my young life, I heard the majority of my hip-hop in passing, on the radio or friends’ iPods. But when I heard Common so earnestly asking, “What if God was a her?” on “Faithful,” I knew I was hearing something far from the babes-and-drugs rap that I had narrowly defined as hip-hop.
The subject matter was often far from familiar—the album’s lead singles deal with sexual fantasies (“Go!”) and a backstabbing “queenpin” (“Testify”), and girls and drugs often do enter the conversation. But it was the way Common presents these stories and subjects that really got to me. In the midst of the scratch-filled street anthem “Chi-City,” he offers up a crafted commentary both clever and poignant, rapping, “Too many rape the culture / leave rappers with careers and their faith over.” Not limiting himself, though, to removed musings, he fills the song with stark, haunting imagery like the “black figure” standing “in the middle of chaos and gunfire.” The album is about being a caring person in a rough world, and there’s a bit of genius in the way Common’s sometimes-unfiltered rhymes consistently hold your trust.
Making music with a message seems a bit trite these days. It’s much more stylish to be apathetic and aloof, or at least to make your subject matter mysterious enough that anyone can identify. In the case of Common, though, it’s most likely that he just stopped caring. His next album, “Finding Forever,” shot its excellent production in the foot with sloppy “Finding Nemo” references, and he followed that misstep with an even bigger one, the awkward party album “Universal Mind Control.”
Every time I hear about something new from Common, I bristle with uneasy excitement. It’s been nine years since a truly indelible portrait of Chi-City life graced airwaves, nine long years since the last time Lonnie Lynn brought true sensitivity to the mic. I’ve held out in hope longer than most, but it’s seeping away ever so slowly, and with every lackluster verse that surfaces I lose hope faster. Still, I’ve got no hard feelings for the man; no goofy rhyme or Gap commercial appearance can diminish the glory of Common’s masterpiece. The album is sonically beautiful, decidedly uplifting, rooted in history but forward-looking. Hip-hop may have changed for good. Common may have moved on. “Be,” though, is eternal.
—Staff writer Tree A. Palmedo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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