By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Getting Out Our Dreams/Geffen
The common Common theory as of late is to divide the man's discography into pre-Erykah authenticity and post-Erykah wackness. It's a familiar narrative, of course, this time pegging Badu, romantically linked to Andre 3000 and later to Common, as hip hop's Yoko, an emasculating power-muse wholly responsible for the rapper's path from Jesus piece and Timbs to Jesus-peace and some nice leather mandals. "She did it to Andre," someone said to me last week, echoing the sentiments of many a message-board post, "and now look at how Common dresses!" As if these aesthetic switcheroos from mad rapper to madd dapper are proof positive that she's got her exes' balls in her turban. As for Common himself, he insists that the befuddled blooz/lovesexy murk of 2002's Electric Circus was entirely his doing, but credits Badu for getting him to the beyond from where he launches Be, a manifesto of personal and artistic rebirth, which seems to rise gilded from the smoldering ash heap of both Common-past and hip hop's horizonless Zeitgeist of gleaming rims, G-Unit'd minstrelsy, and "beat the pussy up"--a state of the art Common economically sums up and excoriates on "Chi-City": "I wonder if these rap niggas realize they wack/And they the reason that my people say they tired of rap."
Armored with trim and delicious production courtesy of fellow Midwesterner-done-good, a.k.a. The Only Other Chicago Rapper Anyone Can Name, Kanye West, Be has Common returning to something familiar to those who know his 2000 album, Like Water for Chocolate, which was half incredibly enjoyable and half treading water. West's beats (as well as the second-fiddle production turns by Jay Dee of Slum Village "fame") show deference to the star by not goading him too far from warm, early '70s organic elements, minimal thubbing of upright bass, and mid-tempo rolling flow. And unlike West's typical Grammy gunners and B96 "joints," the songs aren't turned into Kanye-mercials--God bless his sour Southside-Chi-sqwaaek--though West's off-key cameos, naturally, grace all the singles.
But it's not the joyous summer bounce of the hits, nor that delicate John Mayer star-turn/whisper-song "Go," that makes Be the spot where we turned the corner. With this album, Common doesn't petition us with some quasi "conscious" flow or some anti-cap stance, he steps up as someone self-actualized and providing an example. He uses and emphasizes the word "be" throughout the record to signify realization, achieving "true" manhood and even truer self-respect, and actively, aggressively rejecting cultural and marketplace expectations of what being a man and being a rapper is about. Be is a conflicted tract for Revolution Common Style Now. It's also, quite possibly, the first feminist hip-hop record made by a man.
Testifying to the results of digging deep and moving beyond the stale script of gats/bitches/hustle, Common--on every single Be song--channels the fuck-the-patriarchy and liberation-through-a-love-ethic message of bell hooks's The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love. On "Go!" there are subtle admissions that the P.Y.T. who's into three-ways and desires nothing more complicated than penetration is a "fantasy." The extended metaphor of "Faithful" ("What if God was a her?/Would I treat her the same?/Would I still be runnin' game on her?/...If I was with her would I still be wantin' my ex?/The lies, the greed, the weed, the sex") conflates liberation theology and adult male reckoning. "Testify," battling its weak sauce/ultra-annoying sample, gives a full-spectrum portrayal of women, from down-for-life hoodrat to "the Queenpin." Elsewhere he passes on single-dad wisdom to his daughter ("Talk about it with my youth so she'd understand/What it is to be loved by a man") and, reporting on the "anointed hustlers in a fatherless region," offers a direct address of daddy-damage fallout.
In taking it from the corner to a higher ground, Common confronts who and how he has been, and, with Be, dreams a new vision for hip hop, and begs us to become.