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his was supposed to be it. The ghost of Leo Durocher was going to take “nice guys finish last” and stick it up his ass. Jay-Z could stop telling everyone how awesome Common really is and people would still care. Common’s history of frightening near-misses now had a Kevlar-vest: Kanye West agreed to produce the overwhelming majority of his latest album, Be, and release it on his ultra-chic Getting.Out.Our.Dreams imprint.
Both guys, Common and Kanye, lend themselves to the same aesthetic of post-modern Harlem beat-poetry while seeming like flip-sides of rap PR: Common really wants to be on T.V. though he’ll never admit it, Kanye just fucking loves hearing his name publicly repeated as much as humanly possible.
Kanye. Kanye. Kanye. Kanye. See? That’s barely enough to keep him happy for the rest of the day.
And yeah, as you can tell, talking about this record is simply impossible to do without mentioning how much of the aforementioned Mr.West’s fingerprints, sonic and otherwise, cover this whole album.
It’s pleasant, no doubt, to have an entire album where Kanye takes his nicely weathered soul samples, ramps them up meth-velocity and sure enough, the album starts out fruitfully: Common opens the disc by approaching the violent slums of his peers with “The Corner” and treating the worn-down subject with touches of delicateness and even grace, “Got uncles that smoke it some put blow up they nose / To cope with they lows, the wind is cold and it blows.”
Okay, so Kanye eventually helps by singing the hook. It’s only one song, nothing too bad or wildly overbearing. But before you know it, “Go,” the sure-to-be-NYU-sophomore-girl make out jam, has moved from nicely slinky Common lines, “The body of a dancer, we had chemistry cause she was a Cancer,” to Kanye West yelling in my ear, “Go! Go! Go! Go!” Now call me a creep, but having Kanye, swollen jaw, lame sweaters and all, hollering advice close to my ear while I’m having sex?
Common did passionate, mature love when he released “The Light” off of Like Water for Chocolate, and it’s reasonable to think that splitting that admirably rich song into halves makes sense. Well assuming “Go” is the more promiscuous half, “Faithful” is the slice more devoted love. Carried by the often-underappreciated talent of John Legend, a Kanye-standard wheezy soul sample, Common rattles of surprisingly stilted, even a bit dumb, lyrics:
I was rollin' around, in my mind it occurredPerhaps understandable considering that Be is his first, and best shot at genuine chart damage, more approachable (read: simpler) songs should boost the appeal. But when an artist moves down from dense, winding verses to boiler-plate sensitive crap, that’s a straight swan dive into mediocrity. And now knowing full well the pattern of Kanye’s Mommy Dearest-level control coupled with an uninspired, Common, you listen to Be hoping to hear redemption. It never really comes.
Common is still a fine, sweetly hypnotic lyricist, and Be is a serviceable piece of art when compared to whatever happens to be near the top of Direct Effect this week. But people don’t get excited for Common records for street anthems. Coffee shop kids who aren’t ready to start crate digging get pumped for Common. Praise ready rap-critics anoint him yearly. Much like the Roots (another blue-state favorite), Common never really disappoints, but also never really shines. “Love Is” and “Real People” are both matte, clean songs but upon closer inspection really don’t have anything new to say. He cares about the family, the poisonous effects of hard drugs, trustworthy lovers, and his profound distaste for rims and the men who adore them.
Oddly enough, someone equally talented and spot-light hungry, Ghostface Killah, turned the struggle towards success and recognition into paralyzing, swelteringly human albums. Common just loses himself in his own desire to please.
So frustrating then, for such a multitalented rapper, to have his supposed magnum opus weak, stale, and far more aged than we’d expect. Songs like “Chi City,” and its soft background of crusty horns aren’t rage-inducing mistakes, just pitiful. The window has apparently closed, and Common, with all his promise, never got one in under the wire. No Low End Theory, no Ready to Die.
Be is Common’s over the hill record, the album should’ve been a dénouement from his peak, his ecstatic moment where everyone knew his greatness. He never had that moment, and now everything seems more than a little bit artificial. But after all, this isn’t a real Common record; it’s more like Kanye West Presents: A Common Record.
Reviewed by: Evan McGarvey
Reviewed on: 2005-06-24
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