Chicago has been the epicenter of the blues, jazz and soul and has produced any number of musical superstars over the years, from alt-rock icons to R&B Lotharios. But when it has come to hip-hop, the city's track record has been notoriously erratic, outshined by so many other U.S. hot spots. Even Common, the city's once most promising rap star, never took off the way some had predicted.
Enter Kanye West. One of the few hip-hop producers as comfortable with rap's commercial elite (like Jay-Z) as he is with its underground heroes (like Talib Kweli), West also has proved a potent solo force; his debut album, "The College Dropout," has sold millions. But West never lost sight of his roots -- like Common, he grew up on the South Side of Chicago -- and with his newfound clout he has entered the picture to give the rapper he grew up idolizing a shove back into the spotlight.
Common needs it, too. No one bought (either figuratively or literally) his 2002 foray into eclectic psychedelia, "Electric Circus," which underlined the fact that Common's peerless reputation was conspicuously at odds with his popularity. Common's sixth album, "Be," then, is a back-to-basics move, with West producing most of the album's tracks and Common more comfortable in his decidedly old-school element.
The disc begins with the innocuously titled "Be (Intro)," a short piece that combines various elements of jazz and soul before the beats kick in. That's just the setup for an album that attempts to reconfigure rap as a platform for social observations, the hip-hop equivalent of the masterpieces of Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield.
Few albums could bear such a weight of intent, but "Be" comes close to realizing Common's ambitions. "The Corner" is a carefully drawn and insistent picture of contemporary inner-city life that features hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets, who intone in their inimitable way that "the corner was our magic, our music, our politics" after Common proclaims that "we write songs about wrong because it's hard to see right." "Faithful" features Common struggling with his faith, imagining God to be a woman as he recounts the ups and downs of their relationship. "Love Is . . ." even samples Gaye as Common embraces the singer's humanist message.
Then there are the stabs at broader acceptance, divergent counterparts to many of the album's grander themes. "Go!" is a sprightly late-night club ditty (which features a cameo from John Mayer, an unlikely rap totem as of late), and "Chi-City" is a swaggering attempt at sounding tough while paying tribute to the city Common left for the more rap-friendly environs of Brooklyn. Then there's "The Food" and "They Say," showcases for Kanye the MC, the latter also featuring singer John Legend. If there's nothing quite as immediately gratifying as previous Common singles such as "The Light," there are still plenty of songs for the masses to gravitate toward.
But it all boils down to "It's Your World," a track that brings the album's themes full-circle back to the corner. It allows Common to pay explicit tribute to his roots by giving his father a platform and time for a few choice words. As an album closer, the song shows Common at his best, his rhymes focused, inspiring and forceful all at once. Here's hoping that for once the mainstream listens.