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Common 

Be (Geffen)

Most people agree that the former Common Sense has few peers on the mic. But his last album, 2002's Electric Circus, was an intermittently exciting exploration of acid rock that enraged hip-hop purists, and today's cutthroat industry doesn't extend many mulligans for experimentation. Like any boho artist, though, Common wants to keep his integrity intact and eat too, so in his hour of need, it was only natural for him to recruit another Chicagoan, Kanye West, the critical darling who can supply the commercial beats Common needs while skirting charges of a sellout.

And Be mostly succeeds in its balance of commerce and conscience themes, although it's less exciting than the try-anything, College Dropout-like triumph it might have been. Unfair as it is to compare the two albums, Be labors under an audible pressure not to offend: The soul samples and riffs are warm, inviting, and too often predictable. The title track, the lovely, propulsive "Go," and "Real People," which sounds like the group Chicago, are the standouts among a batch of very low-key West productions. Thankfully, Common himself doesn't seem affected by his sometimes bland backing; the conflation of religious and romantic love on "Faithful" and the courtroom tension of "Testify" make highlights out of merely OK jams, and -- now that he's shed his habit of proselytizing -- his uncommonly strong rhymes have never sounded stronger.

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