Music CD Spotlight 

Take note of that grin sported by Common on the cover of Be, his best album since Like Water for Chocolate. See the way he's grinning into what could be the sun like he's got it all figured out? That's because the 33-year-old rapper very likely does, at long last.

(Geffen Records)

After the experiment that was 2002's Electric Circus - an eclectic album mired in inconsistency but a lot better than sales would have you believe - Lonnie Lynn (as he was born) is back to basics and backed by fellow Chi-Town compadre Kanye West. The team-up lets West the producer show off his skills in a studio with layered, percussion-driven music - not just beats but lasting rhythms (tapping the works of everyone from Marvin Gaye to Sam Cooke in the process) - while Common trades the flashier verbal gymnastics of his earlier years for a slower, wiser emphasis on urban politics.

Take the opening track, "Be": "Bush pushin' lies/killers immortalized/we got arms, but won't reach for the skies." Or "The Corner" (featuring The Last Poets): "We write songs about wrong/because it's too hard to see right." This isn't the sort of pontificating that grates, though. Common might just be the closest thing to a ghetto documentarian on the scene right now, but he's more at home displaying with tongue-twisting words what loud images and manipulative news reports never could.

After a few listens, you'll begin to realize there aren't any toss-away tracks here either. You'll even find yourself wishing all rappers could possess Common's ability to deal up '70s-style vibes like "Go" (with John Mayer) or soulful jazz/rap cocktails like "Faithful" (with John Legend). But that doesn't change the fact that "The Food" - a track recorded live on Chappelle's Show - yanks the listener out of the mood carefully constructed by the rest of the album. It belongs, but not in its current version - and especially not with Chappelle's introduction and the accompanying applause. It's the only blemish on a moving album defined by restrained optimism and unrestrained hope.

By Cole Haddon



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