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Common 'The Dreamer, The Believer' - album review

18 JAN 2012 | Posted By: TheVine

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Common 'The Dreamer, The Believer' - album review

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Lonnie Lynn Jr. may be most visible today as a Hollywood actor, but the man best known as Common hasn’t forgone his rap career. This ninth album reunites him with early producer No I.D. and avoids his occasional left-field ventures (see 2002’s psych-funk odyssey Electric Circus and 2008’s electronics-tilted Universal Mind Control) for the old-school, soul-searching humanity of 2005’s Be and 2000’s classic Like Water for Chocolate. If it’s too messy and moody to be just some clean-cut throwback, The Dreamer, The Believer isn’t exactly revolutionary either. Rather, it’s another of Common’s heart-on-sleeve hip-hop rambles, thick with both highs and lows.

This isn’t his first time leaning on a single producer: he’s done much the same with Kanye (Be, Finding Forever), ?uestlove (Electric Circus) and The Neptunes (Universal Mind Control). But granted the unpretentious snap and bounce of No I.D.’s soul-sampling backdrops, this record returns Common to the beaming positivity and buttery street-corner flow of early-career highlights like ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’. With no skits and just a few guests outside of vocalists singing hooks, it’s a continuous fountain of language.

But again, as with any Common album, there are turns of phrase both impressive and corny. He could be someone’s lecherous, elbow-nudging uncle on ‘Raw’ (“Aware of her chest because I stay abreast,” “Seen that ass ‘cause I got hindsight”), as well as some weak R&B balladeer on ‘Cloth’ (“Anything we could bear/So let’s have some cubs”). And the out-of-character ‘Sweet’ – apparently a diss track aimed at Drake – relies on foul-mouthed, chest-beating braggadocio that doesn’t suit him at all.

Those few missteps aside, though, The Dreamer, The Believer is welcomely strong. From its trippy backwards guitar to Maya Angelou’s hard-bitten coda, floaty opener ‘The Dreamer’ is easy to get lost in, even without the defining line “Maybe I’m a hopeless hip-hop romantic.” Later, the heartstring-tugging ‘The Believer’ works with lyrics presented to Barrack and Michelle Obama last year at a White House poetry slam (sparking a lame controversy from the American right) as well as the typical vocal soar of guest John Legend. In another era, it could almost be a pop crossover.

Beyond that, ‘Gold’ and ‘Lovin’ I Lost’ are mid-album highlights. ‘Celebrate’ nails the thumping combination of rapper and producer that works wonders here, while ‘Windows’ turns Common’s earnest attention to his daughter. With a turn from Nas that foreshadows a planned album together, ‘Ghetto Dreams’ is sturdy and swaggering enough to counter its uneven lyrics. Besides sampling ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, ‘Blue Sky’ echoes Biggie’s immortal “It was just a dream” couplet: “It started with a dream/I wanted to be Run DMC.” As on every Common album, the closing track centres around the gorgeous, affirming spoken-word poetry of his father. There are also remixes of ‘The Believer’ and ‘Ghetto Dreams’ tacked on after that, but neither is essential.

Common has come a long way since the ’90s, surviving drastic changes in hip-hop and turning his recent movie moonlighting into something more sustainable. Last year he also released the memoir One Day It'll All Make Sense, named after his second album. He may not have the monster ego or ambition of Kanye or Jay-Z, but there’s a lot here to remind us how Common rose through the ranks in the first place. And how he’s remained a perennial favourite, inconsistencies and all.

Words by Doug Wallen. More at thevine.com.au.
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