Forgive me the following tangential indulgence, but Common’s latest album has such an over-buffed surface that it requires the element of context to give it enough dimension to explicate in the first place. A friend and I have an undeveloped theory on the continuum of ‘70s sex R&B, with the kitschiness of Barry White’s basso profundo pillow mumbles against high-end strings and cymbals on one end and then, on the other, the fantastic I Want You LP, drenched with the deep, swooping falsetto of Marvin Gaye and a dense, steamily unfocused production. There’s not a vast universe of stylistic difference between the two, but the details make all the difference—the difference between seeing a rhinestone-studded platform heel dangling from a woman’s finger and seeing a jet-black stiletto. White’s extremely popular sex-scapes are tightly orchestrated beyond repose, the overt mechanisms and emphasis on perfection leave each accent on the high hat and each arpeggio from that omnipresent harpsichord out to dry, which is how they’ve spent the last three decades: with the jizz evaporating and leaving behind the leathery hulk of corny pick-up lines. In contrast, Gaye’s album has a niggling lack of structural organization or balance, but each listen reveals a previously hidden strain of seduction that puts you right in Gaye’s saddle even today.
So, at the risk of extending a hasty metaphorical dichotomy onto a pair of albums that probably ought not be directly compared, I consider Common’s Be to be on the Barry White end of this continuum. And his cosmic yang might well be represented by the most recent album from the woman many are still denigrating for her influence on Electric Circus: Erykah Badu, whose 2003 Worldwide Underground “EP” has yielded far more unexpected replay revelations beyond its street date than any number of full-length works, despite or, more likely, because of its formal experimentalism. To his credit, Common frequently brings a sonic unity to complement his near arrogant lyrical preoccupation with invoking his authority on utopian concepts like “purity” and “introspection” and “resurrection” (both here and far more successfully with 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate). But he’s unfortunately given Kanye West, who produces all but a couple of the album’s brisk 11 tracks, more than enough rope to hang himself with.
Each neo-soul nod to the R&B sound of Detroit, immediately post-Holland-Dozier-Holland, sounds more claustrophobic and limited than the last. Usually the most galvanizing sounds are the ones that also seem the most desperately out of step with the rest of the West production code: the Digable Planets bass drone anchoring the predictable string-section stabs in “Be (Intro),” the overpowering, flanged-out piano riffs from the ostensibly live Dave Chappelle Show performance of “The Food,” the really, really old-fashioned (I mean, like, canned incidental music from 1970s Price is Right old-fashioned) sample underpinning “Real People.” Otherwise, it sounds like Common’s teaching from the playbook of a college dropout. Pop culture’s already got enough class notes from that text.