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Be: Eternal

written by: on July 20, 2011

Common’s expression on the cover of his sixth studio album, Be, is simple joy. Yet, the image is so magnetic it’s hard not to look deeper. Where is that joy coming from and how can I get some of it?

From the opening notes—a sampling of upright bass before synths and strings flesh out the beat—it’s clear this is going to be something special. Bright, groovy soul, the perfect music to match the simply perfect album art. It immediately elicits a genuinely warm feeling. Common briefly raps about everyday struggles and concludes “Never looking back or too far in front of me/The present is a gift and I just wanna BE.” And within these first two minutes Common has already penetrated and instilled in you that joy you were searching for.

Common always had soul and as a member of the Soulquarians collective was a part of some of the most distinguished works of the early 2000s, including his own Like Water for Chocolate. But what many of those albums lacked were brevity and accessibility. Kanye West was the producer Common had been waiting for. West not only reigned in Common’s strengths and vision to a modest 42 minutes, but he made him catchier and edgier.

The beats are amazing (as if we can expect anything less from West): Full of soul and with plenty of pop. They show exactly what West’s soul-hop was capable of. Putting it into more perspective, Kanye took Common’s rejects to help form his now classic Late Registration. They’re that good. And Common was the perfect voice to pair with those beats. His smooth tone, a flow that seemingly floats in its own time and uplifting lyrics had a synergistic effect with the music unlike anything in his career before.

“The Corner” is like a throwback to his Resurrection days, but West’s beat with spoken word by The Last Poets elevates the track to even greater heights. Common doesn’t need to end every sentence on the downbeat and he draws the listener in with his tone and forces them to focus because it’s not so predictable.

“GO!,” the album’s third single, showcases the other side of Be: silky-smooth keys atop a fluid beat and laid back vocals. John Mayer has one line on this track: Go. West throws in a delay effect and blends his own voice in as Mayer’s fades. Common raps about his sexual fantasies in an alluringly sultry way that allures listeners into his world. It’s easy to unwind to this track.

And the album goes back and forth from heavy, deep grooves to lush, relaxing ones.

Common’s storytelling skills are in top form on “Tesitfy,” which at two and a half minutes is much shorter and even more interesting than those on Like Water for Chocolate. West’s “chipmunk soul” makes an appearance on “Faithful,” a feel-good jam so inspiring it would render infidelity obsolete if the world gave it a listen. John Legend brings it home at the end with his unmistakable voice. The recurring appearances by West and Legend show what GOOD Music could have been. We have supreme beats laced with keys, smooth raps and extremely expressive croons.

What may seem like an odd move in including the live performance of lead single “The Food” from “Chapelle’s Show” is actually a great one. There is a raw ferocity in both MC’s performances not present on the studio recording. While the recording quality of the performance is clearly worse than the studio tracks, somewhat distorted and lacking thick bass, the excellence of the writing and performance makes this minor blemish easy to overlook.

Things get really intense toward the end of the album, starting with “Real People.” Common paints a picture of urban social landscapes while thick horns lay down a sweet, sweet melody. As the song trails off Common says “GOOD Music, forever.” This leads into “They Say.”

Kanye’s beat is punchy and thick, laced with keys, John Legend’s vocal is smooth as satin while Common’s poetic verses reestablish him in the game. The theme is “they can say what they want, but I’m doing whatever I damn well please and I’m here to stay.” And amongst all of his work on this record, Yeezy’s only bona fide verse occurs on this track, and it is perfect, addressing his negative criticism—his narcissism and his experimental styles—but suggesting that he’s just pushing the envelope and he’s going to continue to, sending it off saying “I guess it’s messing with my health then/And this verse so when I finish I’m just gon’ check myself in—again.” And this sentiment would ring true throughout his entire career.

“They Say” becomes the ultimate GOOD Music track for these reasons.

It’s a shame GOOD Music, a recording and management collective with so much potential, fell apart so quickly. West wasn’t as involved in later projects, so Common’s later albums suffered, John Legend wasn’t always the best songwriter and later signings wouldn’t be able to release anything worthwhile.

The final track, “It’s Your World (Parts 1 & 2)” calls to mind Nas’ classic “The World Is Yours,” showcasing more vivid storytelling of inner city struggles and a desire to break free, see the world and love life: “My life I planned not to be on this corner/I still wanna see California, but this is my world.” In the second part of the song Common has a bunch of children say what they want to be when they grow up before his father, Pops, as he goes by, launches into his usual closing monologue, but this one rings more profoundly than any of the ones he’s done before. Though it is clearly aimed at fellow blacks, any race can take what he says to heart as he is basically encouraging everyone to “Be.”

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy showcased some recent GOOD Music signings: Pusha-T, Cyhi da Prince and Bon Iver. This indicated that the label could be up to some awesome stuff in the future, but it won’t be anything like this. Concise, catchy and full of soul, Be is not only the best of Common’s career, but one of the strongest hip-hop records of the 2000s.

Common – Be Tracklist:

  1. “Be (Intro)”
  2. “The Corner”
  3. “GO!”
  4. “Faithful”
  5. “Testify”
  6. “Love Is…”
  7. “Chi City”
  8. “The Food”
  9. “Real People”
  10. “They Say”
  11. “It’s Your World”