The thirty-second bass line at the beginning of Be is a statement. Keep it simple. Keep it organic. Keep it real. The phrase has been used so constantly in the past twenty years that it has become the opposite of what was intended. Now real is fake, and the ghetto tragedy becomes cliché. The gangster persona was created out of music that was created out of the condition, and the-chicken-or-the-egg game plays on. Why be mean to women if you can’t rap about it in a song? Why sling rock if you can’t make a music career out of it?
Common has been fighting the tide for more than ten years now. Six albums in, he’ll never top Resurrection, as Nas will never top Illmatic, as God will never top creating the universe. Be is, of course, still largely jazz-focused feel-good music. It’s not Resurrection 2, as it has been billed in some circles. It’s a natural progression, even from its predecessor, 2002’s supremely disappointing Electric Circus. Most people have taken Common’s approach to this album as a response to his fans’ desire to see him come back to what they fell in love with. But couldn’t naming the record Be have a defensive edge to it? “You better have the patience,” he said on Resurrection, “ ’cause this is me.”
Instead of mourning the loss, embracing the changes that maturity brings to an artist is far more satisfying. Like Nas, Common’s inner struggle as he ages has become the draw for a front seat to the evolution of one of the game’s true talents. Nas, however, refuses to openly acknowledge the contradictory nature of his persona and his culture. Because it is arguable whether Nas’s omission is intentional, Common’s work makes for a much more straightforwardly thought-provoking listen. Still, there are stand-out tracks on Be that make the rest of it filler. “Be” and “The Corner” are too good to be placed next to “Go” and “Love Is” without the seams showing, particularly on an eleven-track record.
Then there are the true achievements the record will be remembered for: the soul-drenched signature Kanye beat on “Testify” and the horn-heavy “Real People,” which features one of Common’s strongest flows in years (“I be showin’ niggas lies like UPN”). The rest of the record is frustratingly difficult to latch on to, because Common, unlike Mos Def, is so unlikely to commit. It’s so easy to say “Common is back!” without really knowing where he went or why we needed him. Minimalist hip-hop albums, from Illmatic to Blueprint to 3:16 the 9th Edition, have been praised so much it’s a wonder why we don’t see more of them. People have gotten so used to the chore of listening to seventy-minute albums with terrible skits, unnecessary guests and throwaway tracks with bad pop hooks that it’s only natural that a forty-minute disc from one of the best emcees of all time and from the hottest producer of the moment would be instantly praised.
But if Common deserves our highest praise, he also deserves our highest expectations. As modern-era rappers age and the hip-hop community stops throwing away legends past their breakthrough hits, a new kind of hip-hop can emerge, bereft of the tiresome bragging and posturing that has infected the mainstream and the underground equally. Be is the word for it, and that unnecessarily maligned cover is certainly its poster. The album is an extremely satisfying listen, but if Common is to lead the revolution, he has to make more of a statement than a great bass line and some tight rhymes.