For years, Common has struggled with the mantle of Rapper You're Most Likely to Take Home to Your Mama. He's so genuinely positive that when he rhymes about bitches, he's sometimes actually referring to female dogs ("Reality's a bitch/And I heard that she bites"). When Common is on, he's a fearless MC who can rhyme about anything from abortion (1997's "Retrospect for Life") to the sorry state of hip-hop (1994's "I Used to Love H.E.R.") and still make your head nod. When he's off, he's dull and heavy-handed. All of this has won him both admiration and a smirk from Jay-Z, who once said that "truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common" but who also said that he wanted to sell some records.
Common may be able to do both, finally, with his sixth and best disc, Be. The not-so-secret weapon here is Kanye West, who produced nine of the tracks and appears on four. West is the producer Common has been waiting for all of his career: He makes Common both catchier and edgier at the same time. The straight-ahead hip-hop songs — "The Corner," "The Food" — are the hardest-rocking tracks of Common's career. On the ballad "Faithful," the rapper pledges fidelity to both his lady and his maker without descending into corn, as singers John Legend and Bilal reach for gospel heights. "They Say" is the triumphant battle track: As Legend sings the satiny hook, Common and Kanye celebrate a hip-hop world that has finally come to them. Let's hope it stays here.
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