There's no denying that Common is one of the godfathers of hip-hop. The Chicago-based MC pioneered the hip-hop sub-genre surrounding neo-soul, flowing over orchestral beats throughout the early '90s. Common would become the voice of reason for Chicago, rapping about the dark corners of the Windy City in a vulnerable manner. In an interview with the L.A. Times, he stated, "I felt a responsibility to be a voice for the people of Chicago, to represent their humanity." Catapulting himself from a rapper to an actor, he's placed tracks from Chicago creatives such as Chance the Rapper, NoName, and B.J. The Chicago Kid on the show The Chi.
His rap career started in 1992 when he released his debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? Garnering an underground following throughout the 90s, he would begin to hit mainstream success in the 2000s. In 2004, Common appeared on Kanye West's The College Dropout, kickstarting a relationship between the iconic MCs. Soon after, he signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music record label. The two would top off their collaboration with Be. In an interview with Sway, Kanye stated, "This album was like a great experience for me. Say if this album never came out or went Platinum. Just the experience of being around [Common], he was someone who pushed me as a person."
"Be" Revived Common's Career
Be was more than an iconic hip-hop album from the Chicago-based legend Common. After a three-year hiatus, the project symbolized the revival of a career struggling to maintain relevance. His prior project, Electric Circus, was critically acclaimed by some, but responses were mixed. Opting for an ambient-induced hip-hop experience for the record, some found adjusting to Common's experimental project difficult. Like Jay-Z, Common recruited Chicago kid Kanye West to pioneer a revival of his sound. In fact, Be was more than a resurrection.
Common has been at his best throughout his career when his music derives from a source of happiness and purity. That's exactly what Be is. From the upbeat piano chords on the live version of "The Food" to the glistening synths on "GO!," the project is meant to inspire at its core. You also have "They Say," which garners features from John Legend and Kanye West. The three reflect on the double-sided coin of fame, specifically in the music industry. West states, "I know they can't wait till ya outta ya deal / Look at how they did D'Angelo ask him, "How does it feel?" From going through hard times to navigating changing friendships due to fame, it's one of the more lyrically compelling tracks.
"Be": An Ode To Chicago Life
Sampling the likes of Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, Be's upbeat melancholy quality will have listeners reminiscing on a Sunday morning coffee. While the record isn't blindly positive, the overarching tone of the album is that hard times are temporary. Unlike Electric Circle or Like Water for Chocolate, Be opts for consistency rather than grandiosity. Running 11 tracks for 42 minutes, the record's brevity is why many fans hold it as his best album. It's reflected in the numbers, with Be far outperforming the numbers of his other albums. In addition, the album was nominated for four different awards at the 48th Grammys, including Best Rap Album.
"Be (Intro)" introduces us to the record with a smooth bassline, which morphs into a horn-focused beat. The transition from darkness to bright instrumentation speaks volumes to the album's creative direction. Kanye's unique production chops become readily apparent. The audience travels directly into the coldness of a Chicago night, where he states, "Drunk nights get remembered more than sober ones." However, Common's balanced references to the negativity of Chicago life aren't black and white. He's stubbornly optimistic throughout the record, counteracting rough nights with a rising bank account or an improved love life.
"Be" Considered A Common Masterpiece
Common isn't doing anything groundbreaking on Be. He isn't switching up his flow or inflexing Hall of Fame-level rhyme schemes. While the album reinforced the new sample-based production that Kanye West was bringing to the genre, the record isn't highly influential to the overall hip-hop scene. The magic lies in the consistency of the record, making it better and better with each listen.
While the laid-back production can make for an underwhelming first listen, its replay-ability makes the record just as relevant approaching two decades after its release. There's plenty of debate about whether or not Be is Common's best record. However, the consensus is that it's his best-produced project to date, behind the production chops of Kanye West and J-Dilla. Like Water for Chocolate is regarded as his most lyrically in-depth album.