When you talk creative growth in rap music, very few names qualify. We may be talking about only Andre Benjamin (Outkast's Andre 3000), Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones (a.k.a. Nas) and Lonnie Rashid Lynn -- Common. All three made immaculate entrances into the hip-hop arena in the early '90s. Each has broken black urban stereotypes while challenging the behavioral prescriptions of black urban masculinity.
But while Nas and 3000 have enjoyed commercial success, MTV rotation and beaucoup bucks, Common remains an "underground" rapper, always a step behind superstardom. The question is, does he need to be a superstar?
With his sixth album, BE, this overshadowing reach for maximum exposure obscures a lot of valuable content. Expectations for BE are high like Lebron James, but mostly -- or maybe only -- because of its heavy association with the Cassius Clay of hip hop, Kanye West. BE is on West's G.O.O.D. label and West produced nine of its 11 tracks. Unless you're one of these Catholic West-ians who believe Kanye is infallible behind the boards, automatically you question the wisdom of this move.
The result is an album that, while rich and pleasant to listen to, is creatively inferior to anything Common's done since 1994's Resurrection. On BE, we catch only a glimpse of the lyrically ferocious Common we grew used to on his first three LPs, Can I Borrow A Dollar ('92), Resurrection and One Day It'll All Make Sense ('97). It's only on BE's "Chi City" that his verbal masonry is displayed, but the flow is mismatched with a siren-driven beat that has all the urgency of your neighborhood ice-cream truck.
The rest of the tracks are concept songs, some of which hit their marks -- "Go," "Faithful" and "They Say" -- while some disappointingly miss: "Testify" and "F.O.O.D." Even on the potentially brilliant "Real People," West fails to contribute drums that are as captivating as the horn-section samples he uses.
True, West has accomplished much with his many plaques and Grammys, but let's not act like he can't create mediocre shit. His cut "I Try," from Talib Kweli's Beautiful Struggle, was about as exciting to listen to as a county council meeting. Kweli, though, was at least smart enough to not let West overpower his effort.
When their collab works, the product is that smash. "The Corner" is a head-knockin' ode to the Resurrection era, while "Go" erotically and affirmatively answers one of his "Questions" (from his Like Water For Chocolate) that asked, "Because I'm intellectual, I can't be sexual?"
"They Say" is damn near perfection, but lyrically he offers too much apology for his last effort, Electric Circus. Yet EC doesn't need an apology from BE. In fact, for many, BE doesn't hold a candle to EC, which exemplified not only exponential creative growth but also creative maturity -- something Andre 3000 hasn't captured yet.
This is why Common has survived for 13 years in the rap industry and remains relevant. Regardless of what the industry experts say, we do ache to hear our artists grow, especially our black urban male artists, since development surrounding them seems to get continually arrested. Common didn't need Kanye to be, and, in effect, he's actually backpedaled. Or at least leveled off.