Song 179: Common, “The Corner” (2005)

Common-Be11

Kanye West had a good 2005. That August saw the release of Late Registration, West’s second record, the one that featured “Gold Digger,” the one that shot him into the stratosphere. A few months earlier, Common’s Be, which West produced, was released to positive reviews.

And rightly so. It’s not the most daring album (especially compared to his incredible Like Water for Chocolate), but it’s great—concise, layered, and subtle. My favorite track from Be is “The Corner,” a song that celebrates the cultural touchstones of blackness, ones that became necessary as, over the years, poor neighborhoods stayed poor. Common raps about “uncles that smoke, and some put blow up they nose” and says he “roll[s] in a Olds, with windows that don’t roll.” He paints a very detailed, vivid picture, providing a tour of a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and hopelessness. When I first heard this song, I was touched by how alive the corner felt, by how the neighborhood was full of energy (helped along by West’s buoyant beat). It’s clear from the lyrics, however, that that energy is the result of hustling from a lack of better options.

I love how Common uses one primary vowel sound for each verse. In the first verse, he uses an “o” sound: “the fo’s and the mo’s,” “cope with the lows,” “nowhere to go, niggas rolling in droves.” In the second verse, it’s an “i” sound: “street lights and deep nights,” “strive to be like,” “sheep-like.” This method lends some structure to the mosaic of images, and it shows off Common’s skills as a writer. I’m no rapper, but I’d imagine it’s hard to maintain that kind of pattern for too long, and he does it for entire verses.

In between those verses we hear from the Last Poets, spoken-word artists who paved the way for hip-hop (and before that, influenced Gil-Scott Heron, who did more than pave the way for hip-hop). They provide the track’s backbone, the past-tense to Common’s present: “The corner was our magic, our music, our politics… our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge/Our Taj Mahal, our monument/Our testimonial to freedom, to peace, and to love/Down on the corner.” The corner, in other words, was everything. For better or worse.

The song’s pivotal line is buried in the penultimate verse: “We write songs about wrong because it’s hard to see right.” The song, itself a feverish vision, provides a bit of clarity to a broken class system.

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