Close, But No Coronation: Common turns out solid, enjoyable yet over-hyped hip-hop record
What is it about hip-hop that provokes early album-of-the-year coronations? Two years ago, Outkast’s filler-heavy Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was over-celebrated even before its release, last year Kanye West’s February release College Dropout drew (okay, largely accurate) accolades. Now here we are in early June, and Common’s Be has already been handed the championship belt for hip-hop’s 2005 season by virtually every music outlet working. As a Chicagoan, it pains me to play the devil’s advocate about the current pride of the city, but it just ain’t so.
Which is not to say that Be is a bad album—far from it. A collaboration with fellow South-sider Kanye and Detroit representative Jay Dee, Common finds himself hitting a stride not seen since his underground staple Resurrection. The soul and jazz-loop landscapes the producers set Common against highlight his classic, laidback flow, and the rapper answers with Olympic performances like the playful “The Food” and the percussive “Corners.” Yet the real reason so many critics find themselves inflating Be with all the hype they can muster has little to do with the album’s actual music.
Many of these rapturous raves talk up Be at the expense of Common’s previous album, the eclectic and wildly uneven Electric Circus. His decision to work with members of Stereolab and throw his raps between lengthy psychedelic jams was panned on both sides: heretical to true hip-hop heads, too swollen by ambition for those on the outside looking in. Hence the relief at Be’s relative conservatism—straightforward songs like “Love Is” and “Testify” signaling a safe journey within long-established rap boundaries.
Fair enough; as I mention above, Common is at home amidst the structured black-music history lessons Dee and West favor for their beats. But in a year that has also brought the envelope-pushing production work of Edan’s album Beauty and the Beast, the rehashed soul sometimes comes off limp, too content with itself and its well-worn form to challenge the genre’s status quo. Listeners may justly celebrate the occasional mastery with which Common works within hip-hop’s standard parameters, but the hysterical platitudes are better reserved for efforts like Edan’s that combine execution and innovation.
Common, like his buddy Kanye, also smartly positions himself astride both the indie and mainstream hip-hop worlds, using “Chi City” to blast the cred-fetish of the underground and the bling-obsessed overground. Common can most certainly rap circles around the former, but when it comes to crafting the kind of street anthems that tear up hip-hop radio, he falls way short. Nothing on Be can touch the pop immediacy of the best singles from albums like The Game’s The Documentary or Memphis Bleek’s 534; instead, Be’s lead single “Go” is an airy croissant that’d be torn to pieces in the company of the hard-edged sounds that currently dominate mix tapes and stereos.
To be sure, this light touch is a good chunk of Common’s appeal to the critical community, the antithesis of the harsh screams and slogans of Lil’ Jon’s crunk dynasty. But at the same time, Be sounds out of place and time in the modern hip-hop world, the equivalent of U2 beating a hasty nostalgia retreat back to “Beautiful Day” after some unpopular boundary-pushing in their own field. Nobody can fault Common for knowing his strengths, or for picking the right posse with which to develop his talents on Be, but by playing safe, reactionary batting practice, the album doesn’t deserve the crown it’s been preemptively awarded.