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Common

Common's Be

Can Hip-Hop Be?

By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music Critic

Is Be really all that? Talk about Common and hip hop music here!

"I look into my daughters eyes/ And realize that I'ma learn through her"—Common

My question of hip-hop these days is quite simple: can my young daughters listen to you? This is not a question about the language or violence or even misogyny or homophobia in hip-hop—this all comes with the territory—and the reality is that my "whurl-a-gurls" are usually in the minivan with me when I'm bumping the really good ish. No. This question is about whether 20 years from now, when this moment is well past gone, my daughters will understand what compelled us to embrace hip-hop in the first place. As Dream Hampton once described these desires, "I'm hoping hip-hop will help [my daughter] understand me and mine in the same way Revolutionary Suicide, Parliament and Iceberg Slim have me helped me understand my father and his pimped-out friends." Ultimately it will be our children who will stand in judgment of us and hip-hop, much the way the hip-hop generation currently stands in judgment of the Civil Rights generation.

I would like to think these are issues that Common considered as he was recording Be. If there is one thing that can be said about the Chi-town griot, it is that he has always tried to portray the big questions of life in ways that speak to personal demons and desires. This honesty is likely the reason why Common has always seemed more real to us than some of his other "conscious" cronies. Conversations about Common always seem to invoke the adjective "soulful," as much for his music as for his earthiness. It's about his honesty, or as my Duke homie John Jackson, Jr. might suggest, it's about Common's sincerity—a sincerity that has empowered him to dispense with the "formula," hence the wildly diverse body of work that he has produced, be it the breezy Chi-town two-step One Day It'll All Make Sense, or the big intellectual statement Like Water for Chocolate. For all those who decry the artistic excesses of Electric Circus (and I'm not one of them), you'd be hard pressed to think of another rapper (save Andre 3000) who would risk his reputation (and commercial viability) on such a project. And for the record, I do think Common is sincere in his attempts to distance himself from Electric CircusBe just finds him in another space.

Be is Common getting his "grown man" on—a metaphor for thirty-sumthin' male rappers finally getting comfortable in their own skin. How else can you explain the "Uncle Common" vibe on songs like "Faithful" or "Love Is." Respect due to the dramas that only age can allow one to appreciate—which is all some of us are asking of hip-hop in the first place. That respect begins for Common with the lead single "The Corner," which is as much a tribute to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s as it is a tribute to the street corners where so many of that movement's voices plied their trade alongside every genre of hustler, be they pimps, dealers, store-front preachers or race men. Before "the real" was rendered a serial cartoon that pads the coffers of Viacom, AOL Time Warner, and Universal, "the real" could be found everyday on the corner among the folk. The ability to distinguish the between "the real" and "the everyday" is to discern the differences between the fiction of Donald Goines and the choreographed cinematic world of 50 Cent. Leave it to The Last Poets—in this case Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole—to make sure that we remember that there is indeed a difference. As Hassan describes it, "the corner was our magic, our music, our politics," a reminder that hip-hop—and all forms of great Black expression—existed well before cable television and the internet.

Nine of the eleven tracks on Be were produced by Chi-town's current favorite son Kanye West. In many ways, Common is the ideal person for Kanye to work with because Common's strong personality (like Jay) keeps Kanye's formidable ego in check. As witnessed by tracks like "Real People" and "Go," Be ain't about Kanye, it's about the music. One gets the impression that Kanye digs in the crates, not just for the thrill of unearthing another obscurity on vinyl, but out of a real appreciation of the "soulful" value of a record, whether it is Bobby "Blue" Bland and Tom Brock for Jay, or in the case of Be, the woefully forgotten D.J. Rogers. It's Good to Be Alive, Rogers brilliant 1974 recording is one of the great Soul albums from that era, largely on the strength of tracks like "Say You Love Me," "Bula Jean" and "Faithful to the End," the latter of which Kanye samples for Be's "Faithful." The song is pedestrian in some regards (the chipmunk thing), but it is brought to life by the tag-team background vocals of John Legend and Bilal (one of the real stars of Like Water for Chocolate). The duo—who I'll dub the "Soul Brothers"—need to find themselves in a studio together some time soon.

When asked about the choice of producers for Be, Common told AOL Black Voices that he wanted to work with those who could give him the "boom bap," and the mercurial Dilla (Jay Dee) is a nice compliment to West, though in my mind it's Dilla's production that stands out (as it did on Like Water for Chocolate—"Thelonious" remains one of my favorites). If hip-hop production could be described as "thoughtful," Dilla's work on "Love Is…" (which cascades vocals from Marvin Gaye's "God is Love") and "It's Your World (Part 1 & 2)" is just that. Both songs provide Common with the sonic space for the kind the reflection that grounds the best of his work. The latter track continues Common's long practice of featuring his father and it might be the most affecting of all of "Pop's Raps" in part because of the multi-generational point of view.

Common's dissertation on the "everyday" in the opening section of "It's Your World (Part 1 & 2)"—"man to man, I'm good with my hands/My generation never understood working for the man/And of being broke…"—is an ample retort to Bill Cosby's "bash the poor" tour. "It's Your World" finds Common and his pops having the conversation that Mr. Jello doesn't really want to have. Ultimately it's the kids themselves who have the last word—"I want to be the first African-American female president…I want to be a superstar." And when Pops responds, "BE…Be boundless energy," it struck me as one of the most beautiful things that I could tell my daughters. The fact that our conversation would be premised on the Common track—the rap song—playing in the background is what makes all the difference in providing a glimpse of this generation, this music and these times.

Common's Like Water for Chocolate was the product of a beautiful moment that gave us Mos Def's Black on Both Sides, Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo and that moment is just gone—no need to reminisce. Electric Circus pushed the boundaries of hip-hop by imagining what could come after the "boom bap" was done. Be just finds a world-wide Common back home standing on the corner. But you can't go home again and no matter how much he wishes, the Common of Can I Borrow a Dollar? is not the same Common of Be—and thank God for that.

— June 1, 2005

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