Ignore the Grammy speech. Consciously or not, Kanye West is aware of his limitations: He knows that he is not the rapper that his best productions deserve. Breathe in, breathe out, Mr. West—it’s not that he’s not good, just that his beats are better. Be thankful he’s saved some of his finest material for MCs who deserve it. Common is one of the lucky few, and on Be he takes full advantage of West’s generosity. Nine of the concise album’s 11 tracks are West’s; the remaining two come from Dilla, a/k/a Jay Dee, whose pear-shaped production dominated Common’s voluptuous 2000 Like Water for Chocolate.
It’s fortunate Common had the sense to let Kanye claim victory in their bloodless mid-’90s college-radio battle. A decade after testing him lyrically, West presents Common with a real challenge: rich rhythmic compositions that demand equally vivid verses. The elder MC responds with sharp Polaroid poetry, and the result of their collaboration is an uncluttered journalistic counterpoint to the rambling memoir that is The College Dropout—where West is introspective, Common plays the unobjective observer.
Unlike another West investment—his planned line of jeweled Jesus pieces (Sierra Leone, anyone?)—this one was a good idea. West’s musical palette is so warm and vibrant that Be almost glows. Track transitions are well-padded, and he provides his signature accelerated vocals and plump percussion throughout. There’s the chilly “Testify,” with its distant conga drums and plaintive Honey Cone chorus, and the hometown anthem “Chi-City,” all triumphant horn section and sly scratches. “The Corner” is West’s thwack-crackle-pop formula at its finest: Live drums and bass provide traction, soul samples wax poetic, and West’s own singsong chorus makes it hummable. The track is as magnetic as the sun-baked spot outside a bodega. Common double-dutches in and out of the bassline, conveying the concrete’s claustrophobia and coziness all at once.
After an intergalactic trip on his last album, Common has a zoom lens view of the hood—he shares glimpses of other people’s heartbreak and deferred California dreams. Lines are packed and potent: “Riding no-seat bikes with work to feed hypes” (“The Corner”) and “Where drunk nights get remembered more than sober ones” (“Be”). He documents much more than he moralizes, so when it comes, his commentary is welcome, as on “The Food”: “Shorties get the game with no instructions for assembling.” His attention to detail and the precision of his vocal inflections add density to the album’s third-person narratives. The MC has been taking acting lessons, and it shows, except when it comes to his own character development. Just a few years ago, Common was the rare rapper who kept his fist in the air and his tongue in cheek at the same time. While dead prez were—seriously—extolling salad as a seduction tool on “Mind Sex,” Com was sending up his own macktivist rep on Chocolate’s hilarious “A Film Called Pimp.” The wink is M.I.A. throughout Be. “Go,” for example, seems to exist solely to prove that the vocal vegetarian is still a red-blooded male. The fantasies are frisky enough, but the mushy John Mayer chorus is not (why do otherwise discerning rappers fall for the cheesiest rock romantics?).
The problem with Be is that, despite spending so much studio time with engaging egomaniac West, who revels in his contradictions, Common seems to be suppressing his own. The messy 2002 epic Electric Circus left many disoriented, Common included, and that may be why Be sticks to the script, limiting itself to keen observations of others instead of looking within. Be is much more about the people in Common’s neighborhood than it is about himself—it’s a beautifully produced collection of photographs unsmudged by the rapper’s own fingerprints. This has its advantages—in the late bling era, focusing on real people is an almost revolutionary act. But while many of the finely drawn characters here are familiar, at certain moments listening to Be feels like developing a stranger’s roll of film by mistake. Pretty or not, photos mean a lot more when you recognize a face in the crowd.