The concept of a comeback record wasn’t really a thing in hip-hop back in 2005. One reason, and a big one, is that the genre was still relatively new at the time. With only 20 years or so of history — and closer to about 13 years as a genre producing hits at a relatively consistent basis — there weren’t too many opportunities for artists to fade away and come back.
But additionally, “the comeback” just didn’t mesh with the trajectory of most hip hop artists. Some stars from the early days were still in their primes, and never left the spotlight. For a typical rapper though, they would have a big breakout hit or record, they’d enjoy their moment in the sun for a few years, and then the shine would slowly dim and be replaced by someone else’s. Maybe they’d have a nostalgic single come out here or there, or a guest feature that reminded people they were still around, but that was kind of it.
Common looked like he was going to fit that second description. He was an underground hip-hop favorite through the 1990s, debuting with 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar? and gaining critical acclaim and a name for himself following Resurrection’s release in 1994. Commercially, he didn’t really getting too much play until the late 90s and early 2000s, when he started collaborating on projects with like minded artists J Dilla, Questlove, Bilal, Erykah Badu and old friends like Q-Tip, Mos Def and rappers Talib Kweli.
He was a fine feature on songs, had a friendly delivery and was able to throw down a smart line or two here and there, but, outside of Resurrection, was hardly a big star and never really put everything together on his own record again. After 2002’s Electric Circus failed to really move the needle, it seemed like Common would be joining the ranks of countless other 90s rappers who were more or less out of the game.
Be in 2004 was a comeback record in the truest sense. It revived Common’s career, as he returned to form while also displaying the maturity and wisdom he had gained since his early years. And teaming up with Kanye West to produce the project made it all click. His charm, his conscious rap style, his confidence, his distinct voice and convincing flow all came together and met the perfect music at the perfect time.
What makes Be so great is the nearly flawless selection of samples used to create soulful, gentle, moving and smart-sounding music that’s equal parts serious, fun and welcoming. And not one track over the breezy 42 minute runtime feels one bit out of place. It’s also as tight an album as you can find. Everything melds together perfectly to create a cohesive work. Each song individually is almost just as effective as the album as a whole.
When discussing Be musically, you have to start from the beginning. You’d be hard pressed to find an opening track on any album that showcases exactly what the rest of the record will be like as perfectly as the intro on Be. The slow string bass riff artistically and calmly welcomes you to the program, and as it speeds up, pianos and a synth are layered in before the soulful violin sample takes over and introduces Common’s poetic opening verse about free spirits, death and resurrection, and embracing and appreciating new beginnings while acknowledging the troubles that surround us.
Throughout the record, samples and backing voices — which on most albums would be used as small, filtered flourishes or to add a little color — are crystal clear and used here as dominant vocals and hooks more often than not. “Faithful,” and “Testify” are prime examples, where John Legend’s vocals on “They Say” have the same effect. Kanye’s sometimes uncredited vocals on hooks for songs like “The Corner,” “GO!” and “The Food” are also effective in varying the different voices you hear throughout the record, and giving you some time to rest and digest between Common verses.
The album has a few tracks that are a little more aggressive or tough sounding, like “The Corner” and “Chi-City,” that serve as pretty good changes of pace. However, while they might feel a little more raw or underground compared to the other tracks, the mix is so clean you lose a lot of that more authentic grime you’d want in a song like that.
Another slight criticism in a similar vein is that Common clearly sees himself as part of the conscious rap movement, and somewhat acts the part, but in a way that is far more digestible to a commercial audience than contemporaries like Mos Def, Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco after him. It’s smart, but feels like it’s a little basic or watered down thematically and lyrically even if it sounds good and works ultimately.
Overall, Be is Common at his best, and Kanye West — who is in peak form as a producer — curates the album to really capture Common’s abilities and feelings, and also sound so perfectly made for its era, when production was getting more and more rich. That’s not to take away from the great beats legends like No I.D. and J Dilla (who has two songs here as well) were able to put together for him earlier in his career, but what Kanye added was some commercial accessibility without it feeling like Common was selling out. It took Common to a different level, one where his critical acclaim in the hip-hop world was finally being met in the rest of the music world.