Hiphop collaborations are painful, frequent reminders that the two-for-one special isn’t always a good deal. Remixes and guest appearances can be inspired, sure, and so can posse cuts that throw together an interesting mix of rappers for one song. But an album-length pairing of two musicians who choose to work together just because they enjoy each other’s company? Usually a bad idea.
Their eyes lock at some industry event; they bond over a mutual appreciation of illegal substances, overpriced liquor, and King magazine; and soon they’ve decided that they should do a song—No, fuck that, a whole album!—together. Think Redman and Method Man together on 1999’s Blackout!—a mediocre Def Jam– enabled partnership that sadly endured through deodorant commercials and even a television series. Or, worse yet, the Firm, that promising conglomerate of hiphop notables, including Dr. Dre, Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature, who named themselves after an exercise tape meant to tighten asses and produced an album suitable for wiping them.
There are occasional exceptions to the directionless-vanity-project rule, of course. Last year’s Madvillainy, which dazzlingly paired pop-culture-obsessed rapper MF Doom and kitchen-sink producer Madlib, is one. Remarkably, so is Be, the recent partnership between alt-rap stalwart Common and flavor-of-the-month producer Kanye West. In fact, the disc is one of the most seamless collaborative long-players ever produced by two big-name hiphop artists who don’t share a camp or a clique—only a concept and a place of residence.
The album is, in the eyes of God and Billboard, Common’s project. It’s his smiling portrait on Be’s front cover, and the record will undoubtedly go into his discography as his sixth solo album. But West is an equal partner. He lends rhymes to two songs and hooks and various quips to many more, handles production for all but two of the album’s 11 tracks, and is executive producer of the whole party, which comes to us courtesy of his own Getting Out Our Dreams imprint.
Although both artists can claim some sort of ownership of Be, its strength comes from the fact that they don’t often feel the need to infuse the work with their individual personalities. Common is less of a cloying, cerebral hippie over a West track, and, as a much-needed wingman, West doesn’t get the chance to show off that self-important air, flaunt his blue-eyed-Jesus piece, or otherwise be an arrogant ass. They’re the perfect counterbalance to each other—one an enemy of the flashy and vapid, the other a foe to the earthy and thoughtful. Somehow, they’ve together figured out the trick of ego-free collaboration.
The pair are at their best when they’re talking about their hometown. Not since Oprah has anyone done as much for Chicago as these two, and never has a track rendered life there with such love and appreciation. “Chi-City” is the strongest cut on a strong album, partly because Common rhymes in a gritty style that he had cast aside since 1992’s Can I Borrow A Dollar? Back then, he hadn’t yet become the skilled poet he is today, but his delivery was more forceful. The old flow coupled with his more recent consciousness is a dangerous combination, here as well as on the title track and the message-heavy “Real People.”
“I rap with the passion of Christ, nigga, cross me/Took it outta space and niggas thought they lost me/I’m back like a chiroprac’, with B-boy survival rap,” Common rhymes on “Chi-City.” “Tell these half-time niggas break’s over/I’m raw—hustlas, get your bakin’ soda.” As a bonus, the track doesn’t include West’s trademark soul-singer samples sped to a helium-sucking level of chirpiness. Instead, the producer relies on a slyly swaggering, genuinely soulful-sounding mix of scratches and horns.
“The Corner,” another ode to the South Side, is a little closer to what you might expect from a Common/West co-production. The Last Poets show up in what could have come off as cheap, elder-honoring cameo, and West offers up a high-speed chorus of women saying, “Cor-nuuuh.” But the song is redeemed by Common’s brilliant lyrical look at a neighborhood filled with poignant contradictions: “Black church services/Murderers/A-rabs serving burgers as/Cats with gold permanents/Move they bags as herbalists,” he raps. “The dirt isn’t just fertile it’s/People workin’ and earnin’ it.” And adding the Poets’ layer of age and experience pays off beautifully in hyper-real lines such as “The corner was our time/When time stood still/In gators and snakeskins/And yellow and pink/And powder-blue profiles.”
The storytelling on “Testify” matches its track more precisely. Here, it seems, West has finally discovered that soul music doesn’t have to be cartoonishly distorted to fit into the rhythms of hiphop. He takes a good portion of Honey Cone’s ’70s-era “Innocent Til Proven Guilty,” adds some congas, and lets Common spin a tale about a drug queenpin. It’s fairly obvious that the beat came before the rhymes, and at times it seems Common struggled to write around it. But he creates a tale that matches the sample—“Please let me testify…/Before you lock my love away”—with appropriate legalese. “The judge yelled for order/Court reporter makin’ her words shorter,” he rhymes. “She could see how the trial was affectin’ him/It hurt for her eyes to connect with him.”
The fellas take a risk on the smooth ’n’ sexy “GO!” by adding adult-contemporary rocker John Mayer to their team, a move that seems very close to the “Hey, I like this guy—let’s put him on the album!” approach to music-making. Yet Mayer is used sparingly—he just softly chants “go” in the background. Lyrically, the song shows a different side of Common. For a guy known for a song that includes a line about the pleasures of celibacy, this is pretty raunchy stuff. And because it’s been a while since he’s had “hot sex in the third degree” on wax, there’s some fumbling. The metaphors tend to be of the Harlequin variety—“Like rain, when she came it poured” being perhaps the worst—and West, apparently intent on making everyone pay attention to him rather than Mayer, yells out, “Go, go, go!” as if he were at a Chubb Rock show. It’s nearly enough to spoil the mood. That it doesn’t is testament to how potent the Common/ Kanye combo can be.
There are other missteps, too. The chorus of “The Food” is infectious (“Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh…/Po-po,
po-po, po-po!”), but its energy is dissipated in this semilive mix. And on “Faithful,” Common is his self-righteous old self, all preachy talk about fidelity and the importance of staying true. West, meanwhile, manages to create the most horrifying synthesized-voice sound ever, and he unwisely uses it to punctuate the entire track. Common and West are here reduced to stereotypes of themselves: the holier-than-thou rapper, the producer so into his own hype he doesn’t believe he can create a bad sound. For the majority of Be, however, they neither lend too much of themselves nor withhold so much that the record ends up being bland.
Be is neither an edgy, far-reaching collab nor a flat, contrived one. It is a solid pairing that takes two of the best minds in the hiphop game, strips them of self-interest, and lets them create inside a safe bubble. After hearing the second album from GOOD, those who think Common has become some daft flower child will be forced to re-evaluate. Even better, so will those who thought West named his label a little too ambitiously.CP