Funny how 2007 should have been Common’s 2011. His gold-certified album Finding Forever was scorching the charts. He won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo/Group for the homegrown “Southside” featuring the very person who cast a benevolent shadow over an otherwise banner year for the true godfather of Chicago’s rap scene, Lonnie Lynn, Jr. In case any of you forgot, Kanye West's Graduation locked up Best Rap Album too — a big ass shadow indeed.
Four years later, our main man is front and center, handling the spotlight with the same hungry humility he’s held on to all these years. He’s plugged his memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, on The Daily Show a few months back. It is largely inspired by his mother who obviously laid down the altruistic foundation he expounds upon on this his ninth album. Never get bigger than yourself. Don’t forget where you came from. Take care of those who took care of you.
This overarching message never overrides the beat, it flows with it like multi-track mercury. Opening track “The Believer” teems with smooth beatbox and crisp piano touches that give a sort of whimsical levitation to lines like “Bout to speak to an auditorium full of dreamers/Reminds me of when I first had a dream/To be like the King that sang “Billie Jean”/Now it’s gold records and I’m on silver screens/At the mountaintop you still gotta dream to the dreamers.” Maya Angelou closes out the track with a referential poem that would never let a SAG card or Ferrari get in the way of a true dream.
Long-time collaborator and producer No I.D. makes his impression fully felt on "Ghetto Dreams," one of the tightest most bombastic tracks I’ve heard this year. Helps when you have an Illmatic beat on steroids with Nasir himself spitting game changers like “Jumpin out the Bentley with some fresh red bottoms” and “But I’m still single/Lookin for Cleopatra/An African queen don’t look at me I’m a bachelor.”
And just for all those haters out there, there’s the deceptively not so “Sweet.” “I think when I’m talking about soft, there’s just certain aspects of hip-hop that inspire you to be a man and be strong, and I think that some of that sweeter stuff is based on what’s popular. It’s not that it lacks talent, but sometimes you don’t feel like hearing that” he tells Interview Magazine. Reading between the lines, Common is still hard and can’t hear all those soft shots behind a rattling wall of boom-bap and machismo.
It’s damn near impossible to fuck up any rap song that samples some Curtis Mayfield and they were playin to win and not lose when they mixed “Lovin I Lost” up. So soulful, so fly, just right. “Gold” sounds like the type of progressive beat you’d stumble across listening to a Dilla beats CD, who Lynn lived with in L.A. back in his “Thelonious” days.
And of course there’s “The Believer” which essentially speaks for itself or better yet rouses every ounce of good in your body to bubble up to your mouth and burst forth with all its glory. John Legend’s hook is just subtle enough to snag you right in the heart. “They will talk about us/Like they talked about the kings before us/They will talk about us.” A chorus by the king, for the kings without ever letting that crown lie too heavy.
Stream 'The Dreamer / The Believer' in full here.