By the time I was in Year 12, I had already been broken up with a few times for not showing my girlfriends how I felt. Girls were starting to want more than receiving excess MVP trophies instead of flowers, and sitting in the crowd with my mum while I blocked shots on the basketball court (I think she got to know them better than I did.) Women started wanting me to share my feelings (which still makes me shudder a little bit,) but I was too busy watching And1 videos, wishing I could do more than the standard one-arm-white-boy dunk, and hoping to play college ball. When I wasn’t watching or playing basketball, I was listening to rap: Ice Cube, 2Pac, Notorious, Bone Thugs, DMX, and Xzibit were my regulars. So is it any wonder I had no idea how to express my feelings?
And then one night I was watching Chappelle’s Show, and his musical guests were ‘two of Chicago’s finest MCs’ – Common and Kanye West. Having smashed Kanye’s albums that summer, I was stoked. The song they performed live was The Food, featured on Common’s Be. I thought it was so dope, and a little different to the harder rap I had been listening to up until this day. Up until then, I had only heard Common’s I Used To Love Her and a few of his poems on Def Poetry Jam. But this song had my attention, and since I was saving money for Jordans, I found a friend who had the CD and I burned a copy of it. With Kanye’s blessing of course: “He’s today’s Marvin Gaye of rap,” Kanye said on the DVD accompanying the deluxe edition of Be. “Buy the album. If you in a situation where you can barely buy groceries, burn the album.”
Common’s Be showed me that there could be ‘love’ in rap; that it wasn’t just all about the gun toting, blunt smoking, murder fantasy stuff I knew and loved.
The eleven-track album is almost entirely produced by fellow Chi-town native Kanye, and the production is as much part of the album as the raps. The first track, title track Be, starts off with a lengthy instrumental, upright bass filling the air as the track heats up. “Yes,” says Common. It’s game on.
There are some people in this world who can roll out of bed, open the curtain, smile at the world and say “yes.” For me, I roll out of bed, keep the blind down and Common says “yes” for me. This song became my getting dressed song (much to my mum’s relief, as she didn’t have to hear Cube banging at 7:30 a.m. anymore.) All day long I would have the beat stuck in my head. When I was in class, I would nod my head to it – I had listened to it so much, I didn’t need a cheeky headphone in; I had the beat and the lyrics on perfect playback in my mind. The last line of the song goes: “the present is a gift and I just wanna be” – I took this to mean that I was meant to be myself, so I went about my day comfortably just being me.
Apart from getting my day off to a good start, Be also normalised the feeling I was having about that dreaded ‘L’ word all my girlfriends kept bringing up in the weeks before dumping me. I remember listening to this album after yet another girlfriend broke up with me for not ‘sharing my feelings’ and I was sitting at home trying to figure out why hanging out with a girl and calling her at night time wasn’t enough. I wasn’t good at expressing any such thoughts I might have had about whether I ‘loved’ or just ‘liked’ someone.
Then I heard Common’s Love Is…: “Yeah, you know what love is/Even found it on the ground where the thugs live/My man had to dig deep to find his.” It was the first time I had heard a man talk about love in any way. Friends of mine didn’t really have many girlfriends and if they did, they certainly never admitted any feelings outside of their girl’s ears. Common continues, “as men we were taught to hold it in/That’s why we don’t know how ’til we’re older men/If love is a place I’ma go again/At least now, now I know to go within,” the lyrics came as fatherly advice. Not that I couldn’t have gone to my folks for advice, but I wasn’t really after advice. I was in a sort of careless place, but after a couple of breakups, you can’t help but start to care. The muscle-bound athletes and the gangster rappers were my idols, and they spoke nothing of love towards women, only of a love for their respective games. Common was the one who said it was okay to care, and who spoke about “how beautiful love can be.”
After a short recovery period, I had a new girlfriend, and I thought of trying out the love thang. As the relationship progressed, though, I still couldn’t find the right words face-to-face. I reckon even Shaq made more free-throws that year than I confessed feelings in person. I wasn’t too bad at texting feelings, so I decided to give poetry and letter writing a chance. And it seemed to work, as I could just hand her letters as I left her place for basketball and she could read them while I was out, and I would know when I got back we would not have to have any of ‘those’ chats when I just wanted to laze around after dominating the youth leagues.
Eventually, this new girl would break up with me, but not before smashing my previous relationship length records. It seemed that poetry and letter writing was a good start – I still couldn’t say anything in person, but I was on a positive path. Common’s Be then became my break-up album, not because it was sad and I could sit in my room and cry, but because it made my feelings okay to have. As Common expresses in the song Go!: “We make love and then laughter,” in a nonsexual connotation, is solid advice to live by.
I still use poems and letters to convey my feelings but I am slightly better at the verbal side of it all, so I guess not even Common has a magical cure-all. I feel pretty confident saying I would probably still be having girls break up with me every couple of months if Be had never come into my life, and I haven’t been broken up with for years now (the poor girl.)
Hip-hop was able to take the feelings I had underneath and give them a voice. In turn, it pushed me to voice those feelings myself. And it all started with Common’s Be.