Following the release of Common's trippy, experimental Electric Circus, a segment of hip-hop's tireless (and tiresome) guardians of authenticity decided he'd gone too far, that he'd strayed from hip-hop fundamentals and lost his soul amid a crazy whirlwind of outrageous outfits, psychedelic art-rap, and famous arty girlfriends (namely Erykah Badu). Suddenly, people were questioning Common's sexuality, credibility, and manliness. Of course, it didn't help his case among the standard-bearers of masculinity that he's done more for the hip-hop love song than anyone since LL Cool J, or that like his peers Black Thought and Mos Def, Common has actively cultivated a women-friendly image as an upscale, bohemian sex symbol.
It's hard to say how much the criticism affected Common, but it doesn't seem entirely coincidental that his concise, tight, wonderfully consistent new album Be shies away from Circus' experimentation in favor of a warmer, more accessible, and far more commercial sound. Common has always balanced arty aspirations with platinum crossover dreams, and on Be, he's found a kindred spirit in executive producer Kanye West, who knows from experience about becoming a ubiquitous household name without sacrificing integrity or watering down a socially conscious message. West produced all but two of Be's 11 tracks, offering up a particularly warm, lush variation on his trademark hyper-soul soundone filled out with superstar ringers. Be's epic last track alone features Common, West, brilliant Soulquarian multi-instrumentalist James Poyser, Karriem Riggins, Jay Dee, Bob Power, Bilal's achingly pretty falsetto, and Common's dad. Though poignant at times, the poem from Common's pop is a little too Chicken Soup For The Hip-Hop Soul, and the kids rattling off their dreams is a little precious, but by that point in the album, Common has engendered so much good will that he could feature his entire extended family freestyling, and listeners would still feel indulgent. Not every track on Be is as transcendent as its final song or "The Food"a live track, recorded on Chappelle's Show, that burrows deep into the subconscious and refuses to leavebut a good half of the album is that good. When it lags, there's always a transcendent moment waiting around the corner.
Be's intro gives a good idea of the album's remarkable musical sophistication. It begins with an upright bass noodling around before laying down a mellow but infectious groove followed by Poyser's Moogy keys and then the simultaneous entrance of drums and soaring strings. And that's all, until Common delivers a single line: "The present is a gift, and I just want to be." Over the course of the album, the word "be" becomes a succinct philosophy, a challenge to exist in the sacred present tense. After blasting off into outer space with Electric Circus, Common returns to more solid ground with Be, but thanks to West, Poyser, and Jay Dee, the sounds are often nothing short of heavenly.