CD Review of Be by Common

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starstarno starno starno star Label: Geffen
Released: 2005
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The Year of Kanye West keeps on going and going. Ever since West’s The College Dropout landed on perhaps too many folks’ Best of 2004 lists, the man has been one of those forces that, if not to be reckoned with, has certainly had his share of keeping things flowing in other peoples’ projects. Take for example, Exhibit A, known from here on out as Common’s latest work, Be. West was not only Executive Producer on board for this project, but naturally had a hand in writing a ton of the tracks on the disc. Naturally.

Not that many listeners won’t be rejoicing if they’re already a fan of West. You see, Common’s last work, Electric Circus, was either another step forward for the rapper, or an intermittently forgettable affair. So perhaps Kanye West’s hands in the cookie jar are just what Common needed. True? Not by this pair of ears, no sir. Overall, Be sounds like a muddled affair, a greasy step in the wrong-size shoes with some signs of life. It’s not surprising: this often happens when the new big kid on the block starts controlling the knobs and pens of other artists.

Be actually gets kicked off in a good direction. Both the short intro title track and “The Corner” show off Common’s knack for floetry and poetry. The latter track is one of those gritty looks into the current urban plight while looking back and seeking solace. West and the Last Poets chime in with asides throughout and it sounds as if Be is going to wind up being a funky and poetic throw down with a good background of samples (in this case The Temprees’ “You Make The Sun Shine”) that complement the raps.

Oh, but the fun stops there. Well, the flow stops there at least. Let me introduce Exhibit B, Mr. John Mayer. What? That’s right, Mr. mush-mouthed king of sap and dirty doppelganger hellspawn of Dave Matthews got his hands in the sexfest that is “Go!” Hoo, boy. Not sure what Mayer exactly contributed to this tune, but if it was such lines as “Ooh baby she liked it raw and like rain when she came it poured”, or “Freaky like the daughter of a pastor, said I was bait for her to master / Little red corvette now she was faster, wet dreams Le’maire cream in the bathroom”, I’m all ready for the puke bucket. It’s as if R. Kelly was getting inspiration from Mr. Rogers, nahmsayin’?

Then there’s the disastrous “Faithful” in which Common waxes about God perhaps being a She and not a He. “If I was with her would I still be wantin’ my ex? The lies, the greed, the weed, the sex?” Wait a minute. Did you just say if you were with her, Common? Hold back the dry heaves, hold ‘em back! You can do it, kid. Ahh…there we go. Ahem. Two stinkers in a row and we’re not even to the middle of this album. Oh Kanye, can you save poor Common?

No, he can’t. “Testify” has one of the most annoying sample loops ever laid down (Honey’s “Innocent Till Proven Guilty” sounding like a broken record, with Common interjecting “Unh” over the top sounding alternately bored and sexed up), while “Chi City” finds Common rapping “with the passion of Christ, nigga.” It’s moments like these where Common comes off as strained. He just doesn’t sound convincing enough to be dropping that word left and right in the midst of all the R&B smoove grooves laid out on Be. It works in a grittier track like “The Corner”, but not here.

So it would seem that Be is a jumbled mess of ideas and styles that never really take off. Kanye West’s overall production is sleek, but Common can do much better than this. The whole spiritual/sex thing is something that perhaps only Marvin Gaye and Prince were masters at. The rest of the crowd should just go home and rub one out if need be. There are some who will undoubtedly hail Be as some sort of comeback. If that’s the case, then Common truly has nowhere to go but up.

~Jason Thompson