Common

Be (Geffen)

"They say the crocheted pants and the sweater was wack/Seen 'The Corner,' now they say that nigga's back," raps Common on "They Say," a jingling track on his sixth album, Be. The consciously scaled-down Be, then, is yin to 2002's Electric Circus, an album of avant- and acid-hop yang that did no favors for his bank account or his wardrobe. Common just can't stop loving H.E.R. (for the allegorically challenged, that means hip-hop), but instead of forcing her to change by grandstanding through words and sound, he's "showin' niggas lives like UPN."

Congratulations, Common. You're still in the running for America's Next Top Backpacker.

There's one obvious rival: Kanye West, who, like Common, uses one strap to carry his backpack -- the down-to-earth guy in the aboveground/pop milieu that he is. But instead of beating Common, Kanye joins him by producing nine out of eleven tracks on Be. The result is classic synergy. The duo's meeting takes place right in the middle of the road and makes for grown-up hip-hop often too polite for its own good -- where a modicum of rowdiness can make all the difference. For "The Corner," Kanye weaves sampled, rhythmic chatter with a concrete stomp, creating a musical bustle for Common's urban rhapsody that'd make anyone wanna holler. The sounds of "Chi City" are packed so densely it's like they're a product of urban zoning, and Common energetically talks about the music he loves in the town he loves ("They ask me where hip-hop is goin'/It's Chicago-in'"). Elsewhere the rapper, whose perpetually near-squeaking voice is inherently passionate, adopts an introspective tint: "Go," on which John Mayer integrates anonymously, is about fantasizing, while "Faithful" finds Common pondering, "What if God was a her?"

Part of Common's cloying charm is his unconcern for sounding corny when he's expressing himself. Surely he's aware "Love Is" shares its title with (and is equally insightful as) a cutesy comic strip about two naked eight-year-olds in love. And just as Be's concept is based on a predictably que sera sera attitude toward change, so is his flow: He'll still run a meter and rhyming pattern into the ground, and when it comes to inverted similes, he can't let go like Mariah. And so the thematically specific (and consequently mediocre) Be just is. Mission accomplished?

 
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