In Lonnie Rashid Lynn - that would be Common to us - hip-hop may have its closest approximation to a Marvin Gaye figure, a stylish, devilishly (and self-consciously) good-looking man with an effortlessly smooth delivery, whose music is all id and superego with little else in between. Like Marvin, who spent the bulk of his violently abbreviated career attempting to reconcile his love man with his trouble man, Common's most recent records have been equal parts What's Goin' On and Let's Get It On, conceptually ambitious projects that aim to take hip-hop to a higher plain musically, lyrically, spiritually, while consciously trying to stay grounded in the music's day to day street life - portraits of the artist consciously trying to stay grounded in his own time and place and music even as he becomes a not exclusively local, not exclusively hip-hop, not exclusively 2007 figure.
His widely acclaimed 2005 album Be was both compact and panoramic in its distillation of sex, faith, and civic pride; and if his newest record Finding Forever feels a bit like Be (Pt. 2), well, there are certainly worse sequels to be made. Fast-paced, purposeful, alternately prayerful and horny, alternately militant and haunted, alternately furious and peaceful - never lacking in wit, but never gratuitous about it either, his lyrics are awash in simile and metaphor that are funny on one level, but delivered with the decisive punch of a pugilist, dismissing one opponent's career as a typo, while describing his as a haiku - or, in the opening call to battle: "with twelve monkeys on the stage, it's hard to tell who's the gorilla... you were better as a drug dealer."
But Common's greater strengths are as both storyteller and pick-up artist, whether he's flashing his SAG card to a lady reluctant to date rappers in "Break My Heart" only to be thwarted by his own vanity - a song made all the more effective by its appearance immediately following the delicious "So Far to Go" (produced by the late J Dilla), laced with an almost indecipherable falsetto vocal hook by D'Angelo, in which he effusively praises a woman's skills - or in "Drivin' Me Wild", where he details the parallel quests of two young go-getters who go looking for love and fame in better shoe stores and MySpace, a song whose verses come across as obsessive-compulsively (not to mention self-destructively) driven as its protagonists, propelled by a shrill, nervy tape loop and punctuated by a nagging staccato sing-song vocal hook.
If a dalliance with the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am (on "I Want You") proves a jheri curl slippery R&B retread, Common has found a most sympathetic collaborator in Kanye West whose creamy neo-soul grooves lend some sugar to Common's rhythmic delivery; and throughout the record, West's trademark 70s soul samples are augmented by live musicians - most notably a string section - which give the proceedings a theatrical sense of dignity and classicism, most effective on the haunting (confrontational, and ultimately self-confrontational) "U, Black Maybe", an admirably complex contemplation of both the external and internal forces that drive racial identity; and "Misunderstood", whose sampling of Nina Simone deftly (and not at all inappropriately) links a present-day story of ghetto tragedy with the slow fire of one of the Civil Rights Era's most monumental vocal performances, just before Common cedes the microphone to his Dad for a closing benediction on the title track. Songs like "Southside" and "The Game" are bolstered by muscular hard rock guitar vamps, and for the latter, DJ Premiere has constructed the record's single catchiest, most sing-along-able chorus entirely from a progression of samples - very cool.
And although the album, in general, is very cool, there are times when I wish Common spent less time praising his own skills, or putting down those of others. Granted, this kind of braggadocio has always been a fixture of hip-hop, but it's a little less becoming of an artist of Common's artistic stature; certainly his work speaks for itself. By his own apparent ambitions, his work should then be focused on something other than itself. One of the things I love about Common is that he seems to have higher expectations of what hip-hop could and should do. He could start to really justify the urban cosmic prophet image he assumes on the album cover by eschewing the ultimately inconsequential my-rhymes-are-better-than-your-rhymes battles, dropping the pimps, hos, and n*ggas from his vocabulary, and really getting down to business on battles that matter - the bigger things that he clearly wants his music to address.
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
"Finding Forever" by Common
Producers: Kanye West, will.i.am, Dilla, and Devo Springsteen
SONGS: Intro - Start the Show - The People - Drivin' Me Wild - I Want You - Southside - The Game - U, Black Maybe - So Far to Go - Break My Heart - Misunderstood - Forever Begins