"The present is a gift and I just want to be," raps Common on the title-track intro to his sixth disc. Such positivity is not uncommon for this old-school conscious rapper, but never before has he so fully realized his gifts as on the hip-hop insta-classic Be. Following the jazzy tapestry of 2000's Like Water for Chocolate and the eclectic experimentation of 2002's Electric Circus, Be finds the artist formerly known as Common Sense operating with greater focus and purpose, curtailing his self-indulgent excesses for maximum impact on an airtight 11-track set. (Indeed, at less than 43 minutes, this harks back to the pre-CD, pre-iPod days when great albums were meant to be played from start to finish.)
A big part of Be's actualization must be credited to Common's fellow Chicago emcee Kanye West, who produced nine cuts and supplies background vocals for five songs. Demonstrating why he is still arguably better behind the boards than on the mike, West helps Common sharpen his ideas and deepens the grooves on tracks like the sexy-cool "GO!" (which features a hypnotic vocal hook courtesy of John Mayer) and the socially charged single "The Corner." Whereas Electric Circus relied heavily on live instrumentation, West gives Be a retro-soul vibe by making clever, judicious use of samples, from D.J. Rogers's 1976 recording "Faithful to the End" on "Faithful" to Honey Cone's 1972 tune "Innocent 'Til Proven Guilty" on "Testify." On the latter, Common grippingly details a murder trial with a surprise twist, while on the poignant closer, "It's Your World," he relates dreams deferred by the streets where "my mother gave birth but she really never had me." However, Common ends the song and Be on a self-affirming note with a spoken-word outro by his father, Lonnie "Pops" Lynn, making what has become a traditional appearance. It's the one real indulgence he allows himself here, and after finally delivering the disc you knew he had in him, he's earned it.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "The Corner"