Be. It’s a simple message, a direct command. And, it also happens to be the title of Chicago rapper Common‘s 2005 album: Be.
Common explained the title of his album in a 2005 interview, stating:
The album is entitled BE because the hardest thing to do is to be yourself, although many think it’s the easiest it’s really not. Being is just to exist, you don’t have to try hard to do anything because God gave us each an individual and unique characteristic that is the core of who we are. So BE is just about that, being whoever you are, where ever you are.AllHipHop, 2005
Track six, “Love Is…”, and the closing track, “It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2)”, are produced by the legendary J. Dilla while the other nine tracks are produced by fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. Today, both men are considered masters of the art of sampling and two of the best producers of all time. At the time of its release, Common was a member of West’s label GOOD Music, and the pair were already close friends after having met nearly a decade earlier in Chicago. Dilla and Common also shared a close relationship as they were both at one point members of the Soulquarians, an informal and experimental Black music collective active around the turn of the 21st century. This highly-influential group counted now-illustrious creatives like Questlove, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and D’Angelo among its ranks.
Samples of classic soul records coalesce with a myriad of layered rhyme schemes as Common and guests skillfully navigate a wide variety of topics and narratives to make this album a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The host of features includes then-labelmates John Legend and Kanye West; Hip Hop progenitors The Last Poets; comedian Dave Chapelle; fellow Soulquarian Bilal; singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer; and several others who went uncredited.
For so many, myself included, this album inspires you to listen to and think about the world around you. Common is simply talking about his own experiences: the troubles faced in the hoods of Chicago, the waning of youthful glee, the bittersweet dichotomy of love, the unrivaled confidence he has in his rapping ability, the discrimination of African Americans in American society, the battle between monetary success and being a voice for his community. He makes his personal perspectives seem relatable and general, a quality of the most capable rappers and songwriters.
Over the course of these 11 tracks, he verbosely navigates many themes and ideas in a way that only a master of his craft could do. Each of these songs deserves a review in its own right. It almost feels like an injustice to condense the words and teachings of a seasoned veteran like Common into just a few paragraphs. So instead, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite bars and moments throughout the album, and I hope that these inspire you to listen as Common has inspired me to do the same.
The beat of “Be (Intro)” is one of my favorite musical moments ever. It slowly builds over the first minute of the song and comes together beautifully. At first, it’s just a bass slowly being plucked, then the plucking gets faster, a synth begins playing, and then the keys come in. More strings and drums make the beat finally feel whole as Common begins rapping shortly thereafter. In a strikingly political line, he asserts: “Bush pushing lies, killers immortalized / We got arms but won’t reach for the skies.”
Common has a lot to discuss on women and that’s evident on “Faithful”. He opens the track with a series of questions.
I was rolling around, in my mind it occurredCommon, Faithful
What if God was a her?
Would I treat her the same? Would I still be running game on her?
In what type of ways would I want her?
Would I want her for her mind or her heavenly body?
A vocal sample from Marvin Gaye‘s “God Is Love” backs “Love Is…”. It’s a raw track, something I listen to on a dark day when I need to get in better spirits. Common raps “Everybody loves sun, why do I attract shade / Heard of love of money, but compassion it pays.” These lines remind me of Nas‘ legendary track “The World Is Yours”, where he declares, “I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow / Cause while it’s over me it’s too dark to see tomorrow.”
Chi-City is a braggadocio track that serves as both an homage to Chicago and a larger discussion of the role of rap in the Black community. Common’s opening line, “I rap with the passion of Christ, nigga cross me” is a perfectly blunt way to begin before Common starts going after “whack” rappers. On the other hand, Common holds his fellow Chicago MCs in high esteem, rapping, “They ask me where hip hop is going, it’s Chicagoan / Poetry’s in motion like a picture now showing.”
On “Real People”, Common speaks on the racism and discrimination that Black Americans face. He invokes key Black Rastari figures, asking “I wonder if the spirits of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie / Watch me as the cops be tryna pop and lock me?”
The second part of the last track, “It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2)”, is the culmination of the album. Common’s father Lonnie Lynn, or “Pops” delivers a spoken word outro in which he lists qualities, people, careers, emotions, and states of being that we can “be”. It’s an understated end to Common’s magnum opus. It’s cyclical in a way. Be, we do it always, unfailingly, and yet there isn’t really a start or end in the truest sense of those words. And on that note, I’ll close this off in the same way that Pops does, with a two-word instruction that I think we all can live by: “Be… eternal.”
Adeboye Adeoye is a student at the University of Georgia studying Economics, Sociology, and Music Business. As an avid playlist maker, he always looks for connections and themes across albums and genres. He listens primarily to Hip Hop but enjoys R&B, Neo-Soul, Pop, Afrobeats, Indie, and more beyond that as well.