BY M. EMANUEL It’s been a wet-firecracker of a summer for hip-hop. Gone are the days when summer was the season to expect a heavy rotation of full-lengths from your favorite MCs — things have changed. Record sales are in the toilet, digital downloads are either destroying or saving the industry (depends on who you ask and what day you ask them) and cautious record labels are releasing albums at a snail’s pace, and only after they are assured that there is enough radio-friendly material to justify the six-figure palm-greasing required to make them hits. In the midst of this uncertain and often inhospitable commercial landscape, in the dog day afternoon of our discontent, Common delivers a summery blast of sultry, soul-powered nostalgia with the release his seventh album (in stores today) Finding Forever.
With the exception of TI‘s, TI vs. TIP, there haven’t been too many buzz worthy hip-hop albums this summer. With releases by 50 Cent, UGK, Talib Kweli, and Common’s Chi-City brethren and collaborator Kanye West, scheduled for releases so late in the summer we might as well call it early fall, all eyes are on Common. With a bold, evocative title like Finding Forever, Common seems to know exactly what’s expected from his current release and he more than delivers.
Following the release of 2005’s Be, considered by many to his definitive work to date and the album that resurrected his career after the disappointing Electric Circus, Common has made sure to stay in the public eye. In a time where our rap heroes are expected to be omnipresent, Common made sure to ride the positive acclaim of Be with a classy parade of guest appearances and career-expanding moves. Delving into film (Smoking Aces and the forthcoming and highly-anticipated American Gangster), taking up an array of worthy causes (Bono’s Red and the Knowing is Beautiful HIV awareness campaign), peddling Gap as well as Soji, his own high-end line of headwear.
He even made time to reprazent on Oprah as the lone rap artist at her townhall-style Don Imus vs. nappy hair debate (luckily she picked Common and didn’t get Cam’ron — Oprah is not Bill O’ Reilly, and that could have been real ugly) and co-star in radio friendly collaborations with Joss Stone and Will.I. Am. All told, in the last two years Common has diversified his creative portfolio in intriguing and productive ways all the while remaining relevant to the often-fickle hip-hop audience. Common has focused his energies with laser-guided precision on the ambitious Finding Forever, a more-than-worthy follow-up to Be, and another step in the higher evolution of the rapper once known as Common Sense.
On Forever, Common sets the controls for the heart of The Zone. Long regarded as an exceptionally deft and prescient lyricist, Common’s collaboration with Kanye West (who produced a lion’s share of this album as well as the aforementioned Be) provides a mesmerizing sonic backdrop for his ever-soulful flow. The album starts with a woozy instrumental intro, which tickles the cochlea and cleanses the aural palate for the main course in what soon proves to be a sumptuous banquet of song. While astute listeners may be expecting another fiery intro like the one that opened Be, the fact is that Common is in a different place with Finding Forever.
The opening vocal track, “Start the Show” follows the mellow instrumental intro and gets the album under way in grand fashion with a towering string section soaring above the lo-fi boom-bap production. The track features Kanye delivering an intentionally distorted vocal hook that sounds as if he was calling in from and iPhone at the bottom of the sea. “Start the Show” also exemplifies Common’s ability to critique the current state of hip-hop with thinly-veiled disses that don’t require him to name names, a tactic employed by so many of today’s artists who rely on phony beefs to create hype instead of letting clever word play do the work. Instead, Common opts for the subtle approach: “With 12 monkeys on the stage it’s hard to see who’s a gorilla/you was better as a drug dealer.” Ouch. Message: The drug-dealer-turned-rapper mantra is played, yo.
The current single, “The People,” with its big-ups to Kanye and his place amongst the immortal beat-makers (“my daughter found Nemo/I found the new Primo), pays tribute to the trials and tribulations of the people that actually buy these albums — the common man. Instead of focusing on the strobe-flashed un-reality show of celebrity, he focuses on the everyday folks and the titanic struggles that they face just to get by. Wonderfully complemented by the souful sex jam stylings of Dwele on the chorus (one of the most-under appreciated neo-soul singers out), “The People” gives Common the platform to vent on Grammy snubs (“they tried to India Arie me”) without sounding bitter and drop some political science without without sounding preachy when he proclaims “My raps ignite the people like Obama.” Another standout is the Lily Allen-assisted “Driving Me Wild” with its “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” drumbeat and percussive piano plink — curiously, Common elected to self-censors the word “ho” from the song, even in the explicit version. Oprah will be so pleased. Common also displays his knack for ripping analogies from current headlines (“Driving herself crazy like the astronaut lady” and “Like OK Go on the treadmills.”) and cut-and-pasting them into his flow without ever showing the torn edges.
Finding Forever also reunites Common with the “old” Premo on “The Game,” fully equipped with the requisite DJ Premiere scratches on the hook. Common really shines over Premiere’s production, bringing back some of the chemistry that was apparent on Like Water For Chocolate when these two first worked their magic. On “The Game,” Common delivers a flow that fits the beat so perfectly that at times it’s hard to hear where the track ends and the lyrics begin.
My only complaint is the brevity of the album. Weighing in at 11 tracks exclusive of the intro, the album winds down before the listener can get their fill. On the upside, Common shares very little mic time with other MCs (save for Kanye), which affords Common the wide open spaces he fills with his expansive, wide-screen wordplay. There is also some material that while solid, doesn’t quite live up to expectations such as the Tribe Called Quest-esque “I Want You.” While certainly not a bad track, it doesn’t quite reach the level of some of the other material on the album. Similarly, “Southside,” while chock-full of rewind inducing punch lines and slick lyrics from Kanye and Common, somehow fails to capture the chemistry of some of their early collabos — think “The Food,” “The Corner,” or “They Say.”
That being said, the album finishes strong with “So Far to Go,” a masterfully produced J Dilla track (RIP, bro) featuring everyone’s favorite vanishing act D’Angelo (who we hope will return from hiatus one of these days) and the thought-provoking “Black Maybe” featuring Bilal, where Common treads lyrical terrain that most rappers fear to tread: black self-doubt. “Misunderstood,” with its incredible Nina Simone sample, brings the spiritual to the street without sounding preachy and serves as a fitting finale. The last word goes to his father, Lonnie Lynn (a semi-regular fixture on Common’s albums), who makes the wisdom of age sound like a benediction on “Forever Begins.” GRADE: A
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The easiest word to describe M. Emanuel is “complex.” At least as it relates to tastes and interest, he offers a varied palate for that which inspires thought or emotion. Typically framed against the backdrop of hip-hop culture, but with a sharp awareness of what preceded the culture and what is now influenced by it, he’s intrigued by the intersection of commerce and art. It’s a rather natural position and balance of contrast that one would expect from a former college radio DJ turned corporate attorney who collects sneakers on the side and still writes rhymes from time to time. While we can’t expect to hear a full- length anytime soon, you can expect unique and hopefully enlightening insight from someone who, while navigating the world of corporate politics, has always kept his ear to the pavement. Hailing from Virginia, but now firmly entrenched in the 215, M. Emanuel focuses his daily grind in the areas of intellectual property and entertainment law. His many interests include music, film, the arts, fashion, sports, and travel, holding hands on the beach, shots of Patron, and making it rain.