2007 / Music

Review: Common’s Arty Impulses Lose To Killer Hooks On New LP

Chicago Rapper Offers Up Seventh Solo Disc

When taking a closer look at the career of Chicago rap star Common, one can’t overlook the ongoing tug of war that seems to exist between his creative mind and his common sense. The struggle is evident right there in his songs.

Photo: GOOD Music/Geffen Records

Photo: GOOD Music/Geffen Records

On one hand, Common presents himself as a committed artist. His rhymes — like the more politically-minded KRS-One — are often the words of a rebel. The subjects that Common typically selects reflect the musings of an especially thoughtful and sensitive lyricist who, regardless of trends, is creating to satiate a point of view about hot-button topics like racism, spirituality, gender relations or social issues. No talk of fancy cars or cheap consumerism here. And what other rapper is comfortable enough to include so many bashful love songs on his discs?

But in recent years, there are plenty of instances when Common has second-guessed himself when he feels that he’s gone too far, falling back on the genre’s clichés of tough-talking, hollow boasting and prepackaged beats. It’s as if Common — forsaking all of his provocative impulses to push boundaries — sometimes gets too caught up in what his colleagues and fans think of him and ends up sacrificing his own instincts to prove that he’s still down.

The duality of artist versus pragmatist has transformed him into one of hip-hop’s most contradictory and most disappointing rappers. His new album, “Finding Forever,” is so close to being a great hip-hop record, but once again skirts experimentation for a thoroughly safe, commercial direction.

A prime example of Common abrogating the beliefs that he lays down in his rhymes was his appearance a few months ago on “Oprah.” In the wake of the Don Imus scandal, Common participated in a panel discussion about the violent language used in hip-hop. Despite how many times Common has taken to the mic to point out the challenges — internal and external — facing the black community, he played the same game that Russell Simmons did and wouldn’t come out against his fellow rappers who use the N-word or B-word. It is admirable for him or Simmons to take a stand for freedom of speech, but they refused to concede any ground on the negative side effects hip-hop culture might promote in the larger society. Instead of leading, Common comes across as a player who bemoans the game, but steadfastly insists on playing. (For more information, read previous article)

On vinyl, Common has also often backed away when his artistic bravery — an instinct that isn’t necessarily synonymous with making a great song — led him in directions that run contrary to his audience’s wishes. His last disc, 2005’s “Be,” was seen by many as a musical return to form. But, it also was a step back into safe territory after the bafflingly low-fi, avant-garde dabblings on 2002’s “Electric Circus.” That record, spearheaded by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from the Roots, saw Common reach out in new musical directions. He was caught up in his own musichead studio creations, toying with new sounds and loose song structures and wound up with uncertain results. “Electric Circus” was universally rejected by his fans, many of whom are content to listen to his heady wordplay, but want his messages delivered with some slamming beats.

The new disc, “Finding Forever,” has Common’s business acumen (he was a business student at Florida A&M University) winning out over his artistic impulses. As was the case with “Be,” Common has turned to fellow Chicago native and production mastermind Kanye West to negotiate his surrender to musical conformity.

West has an unusual talent for poaching unorthodox samples for his rhythms. Whatever his sources, these knockout hooks can propel a sagging tune into a heavy hitter. This appreciation for unique sounds is likely what makes the duo’s collaborations so harmonious, but it’s his penchant for crafting Top 10 hits that keeps them afloat. Take opening track “Start The Show,” which utilizes a tinny string harp and snoozing string section for Common to lay his rhymes upon. Common unleashes a few zingers (“With 12 monkeys on stage, it’s hard to see who’s a gorilla/You were better as a drug dealer”), but there aren’t enough fireworks to keep people engaged through the entire verbal onslaught. The track really takes off when West makes his cocksure appearance for the chorus. He becomes a sort of tuneful ringmaster introducing and reintroducing listeners to Common’s three-ring circus of wordy raps.

West is even better when he and Common sharply trade lines on “Southside.” Rapping over an explosive, expropriated rock rhythm, West and Common effectively share the track praising their home neighborhood, each doing his best to outdo the other with pop-culture references and amusing turns of phrase to prove who’s the real master of the mic. Common’s vocal delivery and wordplay are typically impeccable, but he really shows his verbal skills when forced to engage in some friendly sparring with West.

West earns his MVP status not behind the mic but the mixing board. He again comes through on a handful other tracks utilizing his keen hit-making skills. On “The People,” he fuses sped-up samples from ’60s rock powerhouse Mountain and proto-rap poet Gil Scott-Heron to create some Stevie Wonder-esque ’70s, aquatic funk. Common takes advantage of the music’s hyperactive bass pattern to drive home his point and champion his self-appointed image as the poet laureate of hip-hop culture. “Can’t leave rap alone,” he rhymes. “The street needs me.” Common is intent on making this assertion clear.

For “Drivin’ Me Wild,” West attempts to spice up one of Common’s signature love ballads by pairing him with British singer Lily Allen and it’s an inspired combination for the most part. Although the track features some of Common’s most clever lyrics and has another powerfully seductive hook, there’s a sluggishness about the verse portion of the track that only dissipates when he and Allen meet up during the chorus for some unusual vocal harmonizing. It’s evident that when Common and West are in hit-making mode, it’s full speed ahead. But when it’s Common’s turn to express himself, the big production pulls back and we have only his preachy rapping to keep us listening. This is where the collaboration breaks down as one of rap’s greatest salesmen must accommodate one of its most intellectual bohemians.

The record goes horribly wrong during back-to-back tracks, “Break My Heart” and “Misunderstood,” which rely too heavily on obvious samples to serve as vocal foils. “Break My Heart” is little more than a bleating vocal sample and is an example of West getting lazy by taking a P. Diddy approach. The latter cut, helmed by guest producer Devo Springsteen, harnesses a warbling Nina Simone vocal snippet that comes in and out and generally elbows Common from the spotlight, making him a guest on his own album.

For the most part, however, West has come to the table with a rack of potential singles for Common to select from, but this is the very crux of the issue. By turning most of the album over to West, Common has made each track’s commerciality the top priority and made himself largely indistinguishable from any of the other hip-hop stars desperate for fame. Breaking new ground artistically has become of secondary importance to what serves the song’s big hook. Common likely hopes that by embracing the pop charts, he’ll at least get his rhymes across. But even then, he has an unsteady record and shown a willingness to compromise with rap’s lowest common denominators.

There’s no better exhibit of this than “The Game,” during which Common finally regains the sharp tongue that he quietly bit on “Oprah.” The track, boasting another pulsating production job by West (an obvious homage to late producer Dilla) and some old-school scratches by DJ Premier, takes shots at Common’s rivals, dissing thug rappers as well as rap stars who lose their focus because of fame’s trappings. Common the critic and true-believing artist seeks to drive off those who he sees as the moneychangers from the hip-hop temple. But between the B- and N-words that he uses, Common doesn’t think of how he pollutes the art form that he seeks to purify. The fact that his rhymes are little more than an ordinary dis track doesn’t improve his artistic standing either.

On one level, thanks to Kanye West, “Finding Forever” is another pop album good enough to keep Common in the game. It’s also a testament to the kind of rap star that Common could have been. The tug of war is over and Common’s practical mind has won out over his artistry. Common has the intelligence, lyrical wit and hard-hitting delivery to transform hip-hop. Instead, he’s been swayed by its temptations and easy stereotypes that he says he abhors. He fools himself into believing he should be a rap star and not an artist. As such, common sense says he should maintain his image and restrain his unruly creative temperament. But, if you really want to rebel, there’s nothing common sense about that.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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