Swear I'm not Paul: Vintage Review: Common - BE

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Vintage Review: Common - BE

Common - BE

Common - BE album cover

Originally reviewed: 25 May 2005

In Ireland and the UK, only the really mainstream hip-hop music infiltrates our musical radar. We get to hear songs by all the usual artists, the superstars. We get to hear Kanye West sometimes. But what we don’t hear is most of the albums he produces or his protégés. Thus the music of John Legend, Talib Kweli, Do or Die and Common is lost to all but the true hip-hop fans. Up to about a month ago I had never heard of Common, much less heard anything by him. So I’m coming into this album with a Common clean-slate. I won’t be comparing this to any of his five earlier albums, because I haven’t heard even one second of them. Maybe this is the best way to review music; you’ll have no expectations of what the album should be.

"Be means to do without trying hard. Be is being able to be natural, the simplicity of life, being in the present moment. Just being. I think some of the most important things I’ve been able to do in life is just be. Be who I am, and at this point in my career and in my life, I chose to just be.” That’s what Common says this album is about, and the album does indeed sell this message. Especially in the reverential closing song, which ends with a Martin Luther King type speech. Although a departure from the rest of the album, this quasi-sermon does not seem at all out of place.

The album includes no skits, as Common and producers Kanye West (who produced 9 of the 11 songs) and Jay Dilla (who produced the other two) wanted to give the album a unified pure sound. West can never be accused of over-producing on this album (as with John Legend’s Get Lifted which is very much under-produced), as it sounds slick and polished with a very tight feel. Kanye himself appears on four of the album’s eleven tracks. But never once overshadows the main event. Common himself declares “I made sure this album was me, I wanted people to feel who Common Sense is at this point. So I didn’t want to go and get a lot of guests, and even when I got people – I’ve got a song with Bilal and John Legend singing, its called ‘Faithful’ but they’re doing more background, it’s not like it’s featuring them. I wasn’t really into putting this guest guy over here, I just wanted to say as a hip hop artist I can hold my own on an album. You know? This album really is expressions of me, expressions of my friends that are married, that work, my younger cousins, you know like young cats I see on the street; I felt like I could be their voice too." This gives the album a much less fragmented sound than other hip-hop albums, and also means it will be far easier for Common to tour!

Lead single, “The Corner” is one of the few songs featuring guest work. But it greatly adds to the track. It has a great layered beat, and again features some Luther King style preaching. Common’s lyrics reflect as he says himself “the reality of the street”. The next single, “Go” also features sparse guesting, once again from Kanye, but also from Kanye’s new best buddy John Mayer. But relax music fans, Mayer does not ruin this track, he just sings very very very basic backing vocals (just the word “go” actually). It’s an excellent follow-up single, and complements “The Corner” perfectly as it follows it on the album. The title track features some nice electronica-style beats along with some really catchy strings, and opens the album perfectly.

“Faithful” is one of the best songs on the album. Bilal and John Legend beautifully accompany the piece. It has all the elements needed for success as a single if released. “Testify” samples a song which I just can’t place, but like the sampling on The College Dropout, this works perfectly. There’s only one qualm I have about this track – it ends too abruptly, and also far too soon. “Love Is” looks at love from various perspectives, and once again could be released as a single. The name of a Sum 41 album is starting to look like it would fit this album perfectly. “Chi-City” sounds like it comes directly from the early 90s. It’s a very straightforward track, with just Common rapping over some simple instrumentation. The only song that’s somewhat disappointing on the album is “The Food” which was recorded live at the Dave Chapelle show. It’s definitely the worst song on the album, and leaves the listener asking would it have been better in the studio? You really have to question what Kanye was thinking when including a live song in the middle of a studio album.

“Real People” brings the listener back to what made the album good in the first place: real lyrics combined with a great melody. The final two tracks are similarly good. John Legend gets some more vocal time on “They Say”, a track that’s better than most of his own Get Lifted album. “It’s Your World” closes the album perfectly, a great hip-hop tune, which segues into a motivational speech. The speech begins with some children saying what they want to be when they grow up, and then Common telling the listener what to be: “Be loved by God as much as God loved Ghandi and Martin Luther King.” What he should have said was “Be loved by God as much as people will love this album.”

Download these: The Corner, Faithful, Testify, Love Is, They Say, It’s Your World

Rating: 8.5 – An absolutely excellent album, which leaves Kanye a lot to do if he wants to better it himself. Only let down by one song, the rest however, are all good enough to be singles.

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