Common gets a shot at the mainstream -- With help from Kanye West, the veteran hip-hopper creates an album critics are already calling a ''classic''

Within minutes of entering a Manhattan recording studio and pulling off his puffy parka, Common is getting an earful of fellow Chicago rapper Kanye West’s latest verse. After hearing the 20-bar rap for the third time, Common nods with approval. ”That s—‘s cold, man.” Satisfied, West, sporting his usual massive gold Jesus medallion, moves on to bragging about his latest over-the-top accessory: an enormous silver watch that pretty much defines the term ”bling.” Common, dapper but modest in a driver’s cap and brown V-neck sweater, listens politely. Eventually West catches on. ”Not that you’d ever wear this watch,” he says with a grin.

Maybe not, but in the creation of his sixth album, Be, the understated Common has been a willing pupil to his boisterous close pal. Common has always tilted left of the mainstream, whether championing hip-hop purism over gangsterism in the mid-’90s or donning a dashiki in the name of black bohemia a few years later. But in hooking up with West, one of music’s biggest and most notoriously arrogant stars, he has apparently found a pop-minded match for his idiosyncratic style. Be is definitely his most satisfying album in years, with some critics already calling it a classic. ”It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had with a producer and creative partner,” says Common, 33. ”His confidence is a good balance for me.” Plus, adding a proven hitmaker to the mix sounds like the perfect move for a talented writer and performer whose once-promising career was fading like streetlights in the rearview.

The rapper once known as Common Sense (and before that, Lonnie Rashid Lynn) grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and released a clever but little-noticed first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, in 1992. Two years later, Resurrection earned respect from the underground rap community; in 2000 he broke out with his major-label debut, the stylistically ambitious Like Water for Chocolate, which spawned a Grammy-nominated hit single, ”The Light.”

But Common was itching to branch out even further. ”I had been all over the world, to Europe, to Cuba,” he says. ”That stirred up a lot in me to create.” Influenced by risk takers like OutKast and Erykah Badu, Common’s last album, 2002’s Electric Circus, was a jarring mix of musical styles that he intended to be ”the bridge between Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.” Though lauded by some critics, Circus was too experimental for urban radio and yielded only a minor hit, ”Come Close to Me” (featuring Mary J. Blige). The album sold significantly less than Chocolate.

Now, with Be, Common is scaling back much of his wilder innovation in favor of West’s more marketable approach. But he denies seeking out West simply for commercial redemption post-Chocolate. ”You ain’t gonna sell just because such and such is on your record,” he says. ”That’s not a guarantee anymore.”

Though Common and West (or ”Rash” and ”Ye,” as they refer to each other) have known each other since the mid-’90s, they got close in the last three years — a period during which Kanye has grown into rap’s most in-demand producer. Even before Common was ready to begin working on a new album, West offered to help. ”When I made a beat, he had first dibs,” says West. ”He had first choice of everything I did.”