Common’s Be Turns 10 Years Old Today. Is It The Definitive Comeback Album?
One decade ago today (May 24, 2005), Common released his sixth album, Be. Although Common was then already a Grammy Award-winning, gold-certified MC, he was in an odd place. Comm’ Sense was 11 years removed from his brilliant grassroots Hip-Hop commentary sophomore, Resurrection. The Chicago, Illinois MC was also five years removed from his post as an elder statesman (alongside Pharoahe Monch and Posdnous) in the Underground Hip-Hop takeover. The big brother to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Slum Village, and Kanye West had arguably started to appear as though he was being lapped by some of his proteges—for truly no good reason.
Following the critical and commercial success of 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate, Common ambitiously began Electric Circus. With a fuller, live-band sound, the album (suggested by the cover) was designed to be an audio representation of all that was on the MC’s mind. Erkyah Badu was a muse to the MCA Records star, who divided the album sessions between The Neptunes and The Soulquarians. Psychedelic accents on the music side were met with universal themes (sex, fellowship, spirituality) in the lyrics. But for a follow-up to a Grammy-winning, gold-selling album that was made for Rap purists, Common seemingly slipped. Once a 40 ounce-drinkin’, Ice Cube-battling B-Boy from the Windy City, the kinder, gentler Common suddenly seemed soft in the eyes of many.
By 2005, expectations appeared mired for Comm’. The fickle fans of Rap were ramping up for the ringtone-era. MCA Records had dissolved, leaving artists like Mos, Kweli, The Roots, Killah Priest, and Blacaklicious out to pasture. A dance-friendly revival in Gangsta Rap (50 Cent, Game, T.I., Lil’ Kim, Fat Joe) had pancaked the Underground as it was known at the turn of the millennium, and artists like Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, De La Soul, and even Little Brother seemed mainstream-marginalized, no matter who great their music was. Naturally, Common would make more music, but anticipation felt waned.
Comm’ was newly signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music (through his allocated Geffen Records). To a skeptic, the master was turning to the student for a job. Like 50 Cent’s G-Unit signing Mobb Deep and M.O.P., the label relationship appeared to be a status symbol, a feather in the cap of the young Roc-A-Fella Records sensation. With just one album out, ‘Ye was signing upwards.
Additionally, between 2002 and 2005, Common had slowed his roll. The MC notably appeared on ‘Ye’s The College Dropout, but stepped out of the workhorse reputation he held. In that time, Comm’ had broken up with Badu, and stepped away from the limelight—not unlike his mid-1990s transition.
“The Chappelle Show” would be Common’s stage to show change. On March 3, 2004, Comm’ performed “The Food” on his friend’s comedic-variety program, the first element of Be that anyone would hear. More than a year before the album, the scratch-heavy, sample-driven backdrop allowed Common to not only show that he was beyond the costumes, the live band, and the Jimi Hendrick bend, but he had a new sound. It was the Common Heads knew and depended on, but not going backwards in the least. This moment was the shot heard ’round the Hip-Hop world, with everybody talking about Common. This opened the excitement that was missing over much of the last two years.
By March 1, 2005, it was cemented. “The Corner” was the real marketing introduction to Be. With Kanye’s chirped-up Soul music, Common stood alongside Rap pioneers The Last Poets in describing the streets. The opposite of that “soft” accusation from three years prior, Common was not “rockin’ Rockports” anymore, but standing among the people who “talk shit, play lotto, and drink German beers.” Arguably, this song was a callback to the attitude of Rashid from his days kickin’ it with The Beatnuts on Can I Borrow A Dollar? However, all the individual progress Common made sense was at play. The song was insightful, non-judgmental, even if it was in a world, but not of the world. If the Rap fans wanted something guttural, Common and Kanye hit them in the chest.
Be was not designed to be a hard album at all. Third single, “Go!” brought in John Mayer’s smoky voice. Upbeat, the song was an exercise in rapping, sensuality, and more. This was arguably what Comm’ tried to do on Electric Circus, that was lost in translation—true of “Faithful” too. The follow-up, “Testify” was sheer storytelling. Kanye’s aggressive sample programming colored the way for Common to again, deal with so-called street themes. The song employed suspense, a reversal, and a radio-storyline, something that was not commonplace in mid-2000s Rap.
In just 11 songs, Common’s Be was a showstopper in 2005. A would-be gold effort, the album won back Common’s core audience, it signaled the excitement in Getting Out Our Dreams Music Group, and it brought some “food” to the mainstream. The Grammy committee even looked at “The Grammy Family,” nominating Be for “Best Rap Album.” Common found a porthole to make music that stood alongside the 50 Cents, the Terror Squads, and Lil Waynes. More than that, 13 years into a career, Common proved that he would never stagnate, or apologize for what did not work. Instead, this MC was a true creative, who could move as he wished within no confines of his canvas. Like he was to the Rawkus guys in the late ’90s, Common was the veteran coming in to show everybody how its done. When Rap started to feel like a disposable art, Common made a living, breathing album—void of marketing hype, controversy, or street-certified exposition.
Interestingly, Be was not Common’s first comeback album—and it would not be his last either, something fans have witnessed in the 2010s. However, for an artist who had established pockets with several producers, themes, and sounds, Common surprised everybody in an age when nobody appeared shocked about anything. Be may be the most important album in Common’s discography, and a crown jewel for G.O.O.D.’s mantra.
Ten years ago, who could have predicted that Common would win an Academy Award, battle another reigning MC, and be involved with a group called Cocaine 80s in the next 10 years?
Is Common’s Be the ultimate Rap comeback album? If not, what’s better?