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