December 27, 2011

No I.D. just sent Jonah Bromwich a beat tape.

Self-seriousness. It’s always been Common’s Achilles heel. When he forgets to be Common, conscious rapper and spokesman for the people, he’s one of the most compelling veterans in the game. When he casts himself in that role-model mold, he becomes a caricature, the guy we make fun of for being a sweater-sporting gap model and a b-movie actor.

His new album, The Dreamer, The Believer has had songs leaking steadily and it was apparent even before the full album dropped that, despite having all the trappings of the worst kind of Common album, (the faux-inspirational title, Maya Angelou on the intro track, etc.) his 2011 release was going to be the best thing that he had done since 2003’s classic, Be.
Much of the credit for the album goes to producer No ID, who gives every track on the album a soulful sonic identity, without sacrificing any kind of heat on the drums. The beats perfectly reflect Common’s attitude, which, while still interested in the beauty of life and scarves is far grittier and less self-conscious than usual.

We saw that immediately, when the first (and still best) cut from the album was released. Instead of looking skyward as is his wont, on “Ghetto Dreams” Common remembers looking across the street and seeing what he wants standing right there. In what qualifies as a fantastic twist (because it’s not about the abstract idea of dreaming which has been beaten to death), the song is a romantic fantasy about the perfect woman. It’s sexy and honest, and it features an incredible, focused Nas verse. It’s not a song of the year candidate because it has nothing to do with 2011, a classic rap sound that would have made perfect sense no matter what year it was released.

“Ghetto Dreams” has a lot of great tracks keeping it company. The aptly titled “Raw” bangs as Common stretches syllables while hitting on a bartender, telling a story that’s completely different from “Testify” but shows us that he still has that kind of songwriting ability. “Sweet” takes the implicit arrogance that’s so grating in many Common songs and sucks the poison out by making it explicit; there’s nothing wrong with a classic shit-talker. And we get honest reflection on “Cloth” when Common admits that “I had issues” in a particular relationship.

Elsewhere “Blue Sky” balances occasional generalities about God and inspiration with genuine shouts to Chicago ballplayers (Wade may never have been mentioned as the next Jordan but he’s certainly his successor in the rap shout-out) and likeable boasting, while one of the best beats on the album shores up any shaky lyrics. Childhood tales from Chicago collide with religious parables on “Gold” with surprisingly little collateral damage. And “Celebrate” utilizes twinkly piano keys to praise the best, most relatabale parts of coming home.

Something I’ve realized recently while thinking about the work of David Foster Wallace and Louis CK (by GQ’s standards I’m thoroughly middlebrow) is that you have to pay a kind of artistic toll to be allowed to spout banalities. If you demonstrate yourself to have something to say intelligently, or funny, or you get the details right — basically if you make a legitimate, fair and true work of art, then you’re allowed to cap it off a cliché. You can reintroduce, at the end of a bunch of smart, unpretentious crap, ideas that people have “known” forever but are always worthwhile to see in a new light, as the conclusion to a work that has defamiliarized a generic idea by making it specific enough to renew some kind of meaning in it.

While I don’t think that Common has quite reached the artistic heights of the aforementioned luminaries, on The Dreamer, The Believer he writes enough lyrics, and spits enough truth to justify the title and the ideas behind his album. It even permits the last two songs, on which he finally gives in to the instincts that he’s largely avoided. By acting like a regular, everyday guy Common grants himself (and his father) license to pontificate on the meaning of dreaming and believing.

Download:
MP3: Common ft. Nas-“Ghetto Dreams”

MP3: Common-“The Believer” (No I.D. Alternate Version)”

Common – “Raw” by ThinkCommon