Hip-hop is the Zarathustra of pop music, the last man standing, pulling in everything that came before it, the highs of production technology and texturing down to the basest thug posturing, simultaneously working the vein of and railing against racial stereotypes, acting like its going to ditch us all for our weakness before it Shaolin struts into the fog. Not all hip-hop does this, mind you, but a lot of it does. Maybe it set the bar low, relying on samples of already great music rather than having the hurdle of instrumental chops to overcome. I mean, I like The Roots a lot, but ?estlove ain't exactly reinventing the drums.
Common is one of those cats that know how to exploit hip-hop's successes and faults to create the most consistently interesting catalog in the game. He works a Shaft swagger with an effortless flow over a m?©lange of the smoothest R&B redux. He's like the old Spike Lee movies that hearken back to a time that didn't really quite exist and make it current, universal. I was suckered in by the easy intro "Ladies and gentlemen, the c-o-double m-o-N" that kicks off the ambient dis barrage/ego trip of "The People." Good friend Kanye is all over this record, and having heard Graduation, he spent his better moments in Common's corner. Outsideleft's favorite instant has-been chanteuse Lily Allen does a nice turn as the looped songbird on "Drivin' Me Wild' as Common does what he does best, tell a story. It's usually the same story, about some gal that is messing around on him, times are tough, he's gonna make it one day, etc etc...ut Common can pepper a rant with references quicker than Dennis Miller, fitting in lines like "drivin' herself crazy like the astronaut lady." Not timeless, but, right now, brilliant.
"I Want You" relies a little to heavily on the sample from Bob James silky funk, but then Black Eyed Pea will.i.am who produced it has never met an idea he won't run straight into the ground. Trading lines with Kanye on "Southside" immediately redeems things. My first exposure to Common was his bit with Kanye performing "The Food" on The Chappell Show, and their effortless interplay on this track continues this upward trajectory.
The standout for me though is "So far To Go" featuring D'angelo, crucially absent from the scene since Voodoo in 2000, and a low-rider grove from the dearly departed J. Dilla. Frankly it sounds a lot more like a D'angelo track than a Common track, but that's OK by me. His consciousness is allowed to flare out Marvin Gaye style on "Black Maybe" pulling from the Stevie Wonder song by the same name. What I like about Common, what I think a lot of MC's fail to grasp, is how to contextualize a sample, how to pull from it and make it work for you rather than use it as a surfacing whale on which to sit, just to catch a moment of awe from those watching from the shore.
You can practically smell the junkie sweats coming offa Nina Simone as she creaks through the backing track of "Misunderstood" as Common dons his impeccable street hustler-cum-slam poet drag. The way that guitar flickers in like a bare bulb on a string makes a perfect counterpoint to Common's flawless delivery. The darkness seeps in under the cracks in the door. Powerful stuff.
"Forever Begins" is an epic soul-out that brings us down for a landing. Common weaves like a boxer around the twittering background vocals and the martial beat expertly excised from Paul Simon "50 Ways to leave Your Lover" and like on all of Common's records, his father Lonnie "Pops" Lynn comes in like the moral to the story with his grizzled, wizened voice. Honestly, it's a little ham-fisted, but it totally works. Common knows how to manipulate the popular conception of black identity and make something bleed through it. He'll play the pimp, the dealer, the wide-eyed soul survivor, the cocky thug, all the while putting forth an ultimately uplifting message of love and prosperity. I'm hard pressed to point out another hip hop artist who can do that.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com