Full disclosure: I go back and forth on Common. Some days I feel like he was an essential cornerstone to the infamously posh neo-soul Solquarians and remains a Chi-town mainstay. Other days, though, I turn my nose at his fledgling acting career (Happy Feet Two, anyone?) and a slew of tracks from his back catalogue that lyrically read like self-help books. His 2005 LP, Be, while fantastic and arguably his career piÃ¨ce de résistance, was a fluffy “you can do anything you put your mind to” cheese fest. For better or worse, inspiring raps are what Common does best. Well, maybe not best. I’ll rephrase: inspiring raps are what Common does most frequently.
So, in hearing that he was rolling out his ninth album, and that it was to be called The Dreamer, The Believer, I mistakenly tossed it aside as just another “feel good about yourself” Common album. As the tracklist began to take shape, I became even more skeptical. Common, who had little difficulty nabbing (in large numbers) the most illustrious performers to guest on his last four or five albums, chose to use only three guest performers here, albeit great ones: Maya Angelou, Nas, and John Legend.
While your album should never be rated on how good your guests are, they often make or break albums. In Common’s case, those guest spots are some of the only things that keep his head out of the clouds and put some real grit into his music. All things considered, Common should have no trouble finding help. The man’s got one of the deepest rolodexes in the music world, with notable performances coming from every neck of the woods: Kanye West, Prince, Stereolab’s LÃ¦titia Sadier, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo Green, John Mayer, A-Trak, Mos Def, Lily Allen, etc. And while that list may look like you just hit shuffle on your iPod, they all come across as strangely cohesive.
If nothing else, Common knows exactly what he wants his albums to sound like. He is hands down one of the best MCs in rap history in terms of creating sonically coherent hip-hop albums, and the proof is in the pudding. Look at the production credits on any one of his albums. They all have focused around one primary producer, whether it be No I.D., The Neptunes, Kanye, or the late J. Dilla. It’s never a hodgepodge of random production. Common has a very solid idea of where he’s headed sonically, making many of his albums borderline concept.
The Dreamer, The Believer is the most polarized example of the “one producer only” approach. Fellow Chicago heavy hitter No I.D. handled the production on every track here and it shows. Clean neo-soul sounds reign supreme for the entirety of the album’s 50 minutes. And as it unfurls, the congruity between Common and No I.D. becomes blaringly apparent. Common spits with charisma and class on every track, right at home on top of No I.D.’s tight production. It’s truly a hand in glove affair.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned curse of leaving Common to his own devices without a few contributors prevails for the most part. There are a few of the preachy tracks that are sure to move audiences nationwide, namely the Angelou-endorsed opener “The Dreamer”, the John Legend-featuring “The Believer”, and the poignantly intimate album closer “Pops Belief”, featuring the spoken word of the wizened father of Common, Lonny “Pops” Lynn, who is no stranger to appearing on his son’s albums. His paternal wisdom parallels that of Angelou’s in the beginning (what better ode to a father?), bookending an album about dreaming big no matter the circumstance.
But the album doesn’t really spark until you fold in a few of the harder tracks. On “Ghetto Dreams”, Nas lends his voice and there’s a much more abrasive beat than usual. This may shock Common fans, though it also may satiate those who’ve been yearning for something different. After all, the harder, darker side of Common is one that hardly surfaces, though it’s a gem when it does. “Sweet” continues this aesthetic, but the remainder of the album falls somewhere between balladry and mild-core hip-hop. Not particularly a bad thing – especially for this time of the year – but one can’t help but wish for a little less Tony Robbins and a little more Ol’ Dirty Bastard. One can dream, one can believe – right?
Essential Tracks: “Ghetto Dreams (Feat. Nas)”, “The Believer (Feat. John Legend)”, “Sweet”