Sunday, August 19, 2007

Common, Finding Forever

I’m going to start a review of Common’s Finding Forever by talking about his 2002 album, Electric Circus. Last summer, my musical hero ?uestlove had this to say about Electric Circus:

Electric Circus is the brilliant tree that fell in the forest--and nobody was around to hear it. [It] was an album so radical that no one really bothered to pay attention. But I think in due time--similar to Shuggie Otis' Inspiration Information, albums that you just discover 15-20 years down the line--that will be the album. That was the least-selling record of his career--sold barely 200,000 units. No fault of his own--a lot of it had to do with the fact that the label went bankrupt and actually ceased to exist a week after he released it. So he was without a label, and the album just deep-sixed.
Earlier in the same interview, he said that he thought EC would “catch on in the future. ... It has a futuristic clock-work element to it.”

Now, I’m not totally sure what that means, but I know I agree with it. When EC was released on December 10, 2002, hip hop was in a golden me, at least. The Roots’ Phrenology—phenomenal and almost as misunderstood as Electric Circus—had come out a couple of weeks prior (November 26), Talib Kweli’s Quality (ditto) the week before that (November 19) and Jurassic 5’s Power in Numbers the month before that (October 8). That’s a murderer’s row of amazing hip hop right there! Not since fall 1998—Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Outkast’s Aquemini, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, and Black Star’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star—had so many great hip hop albums come out so close together. And not only were they great, they’ve gotten better with age.

I was giddy about this great music at the time, but looking back, I should have appreciated it even more than I did. The naïve optimist in me thought that was where hip hop was headed—this cool musical candyland with no walls or genre barriers, where guitars and futuristic sounds and deep messages combined with the heavy bass and samples and classic hip hop techniques. Alas, I was horribly incorrect.

It’s been almost five years, and I don’t think there’s been a single album that good released since then...not even by those artists. Jurassic 5 took four years putting out a decent-at-best release and broke up. Kweli put out a strong-not-spectacular album in ’04, and he’s got another one out in three days. The Roots have been prolific in putting out two albums since Phrenology, but neither has been as ground-breaking. And Common started over.

Electric Circus was the best example of both a) how great this new hip hop was and b) how horribly wrong I was. Coming so soon after Phrenology—which was recorded in the same studio (NYC’s Electric Lady) with many of the same happened-to-be-hanging-out-there producers and musicians, it took things further than anybody else had, for better or worse. I shared my copies of both EC and Phrenology with a friend of mine who loves hip hop, assuming he’d be as blown away as I was, and while he thought Phrenology was pretty good, he couldn’t stand EC. It creeped him out. He didn’t even get all the way through it.

A lot of fans didn’t like it, actually. After the relatively clean, accessible sound of 2000’s revelatory Like Water for Chocolate, the album that established him as a bigtime presence in hip hop, Electric Circus demanded work. When you establish yourself with a particular song or album, you’re pretty much guaranteed to tick off your fanbase if you ever try something new. Just ask Bob Dylan, or (in more modern times) Dave Matthews, or Rilo Kiley, who are putting out a new album on Tuesday—Under the Blacklight—which sounds NOTHING like anything they’ve ever done (it’s streaming on their Myspace page, and it’s already pissed a lot of folks off). They’re selling out to the man! They’re turning their back on the fans! They’re dead to me!

Or, they’re just following their artistic vision.

Common immersed himself in the sounds coming out of Electric Lady studios (he was no doubt at least minutely impacted by his girlfriend-at-the-time Erykah Badu as well) and created something entirely unique in the land of hip hop. Five years later, EC still sounds challenging and innovative.

And five years later, Common has changed his sound entirely. That’s not inherently bad—I love it when an artist changes directions. Com’s new album, Finding Forever, is as strong lyrically as anything else he’s put out. He’s self-deprecating, passionate, sharp, and just as unique as he was when he released Can I Borrow a Dollar? in 1992. Sonically, it’s a logical follow-up to 2005’s Be, and nothing more. There were two major developments between Electric Circus and Be. First was the need to go somewhere different—no matter how good EC was, there was no way to follow up on it. It went as far as it could go in the direction it went. Com had no choice but to make a right turn. And second was the emergence of Kanye West. When West blew up with The College Dropout in 2004, he became the de facto ‘Biggest Producer in the World’, and his Chicago ties led him to work with Common. West’s sound, which revolves mostly around souped up old soul samples, represented the new direction that Com needed, and Be was strong. There was no way I could enjoy the follow-up to Electric Circus as much as EC itself, but it was good.

So when I found out when he would be working primarily with West again for Finding Forever, my main question was, will Common take another creative step, or will this be Be II? Well I’ve plowed through this album a few times (something you have to do for an artist like Com), and while it sounded distinctively Be II-esque the first time (lots of the same type of soul samples), it’s definitely growing on me.

First, you’ve got the old hip hop standard, the call-and-response. It’s well represented in songs like “Southside” (with a refrain of Common yelling “South” and West yelling “Side” quickly and repetitively.

Then you’ve got the hip hop love song, a Common specialty. Hip hop love songs are unbearably cheesy 99.9% of the time (though Ja Rule’s responsible for about 92% of that), but Common has two of the best—Like Water for Chocolate’s unbelievable “The Light” and Electric Circus’s “Come Close”—and he adds more to the catalog with "So Far to Go". It’s super smooth, plus it welcomes legally-troubled R&B badass D’Angelo back to the world of music, and it doesn’t try to be more than it is.

There’s the social anthem, another Common specialty. After “The Corner” dominated Be, it’s “The People” and “U, Black Maybe” that respond to the call for social responsibility. “The People” even has a Gil Scott-Heron sample just to reinforce the concept.

Beyond what’s expected from Common, there are the unique, one-time-only styles that come and go. On Electric Circus, “I Got a Right Ta” thumped and buzzed like no other song in the Com catalog. On Be, the courtroom drama of “Tesify” came, ruled, and went. This time it’s “Drivin’ Me Wild”, as strangely poppy as anything Common’s done, with the quirky Lily Allen filling in on the chorus.

Now, "Drivin' Me Wild' is a strong song, but...quick aside: it’s a pet peeve of mine when somebody’s brought in for a guest appearance, sings the melody they’re supposed to sing (exactly like anybody else could have), gets their name on the song (“featuring _____!”), and disappears. On Talib Kweli’s The Beautiful Struggle, Mary J. Blige sang the chorus for “I Try” and appeared on the video and everything...only she didn’t really get to be Mary J. Blige, doing Mary J. Blige types of things in the process.

I’m saying this because that’s pretty much what Lily Allen does here. When I got to the end of the album the first time around, I recalled that Allen was to appear on one of the songs, and I couldn’t remember which one it would have been. Again, good song, but...opportunity wasted. You had Lily Allen in the studio, she could have done a little more.

Another aside, this one ironic: there’s a lyric on the song “Break My Heart” that goes “She said, ‘you know I don’t be datin’ rappers’/I said I got my SAG card, baby, I’m an actor.” That’s a reference to his ever-growing IMDB page, and it’s also an example of some solid self-deprecation. Why’s it ironic? On Electric Circus’ “Soul Power”, he (supposedly) takes on Mos Def for his detours into acting and his lack of commitment to his hip hop craft. From the PopMatters review of EC:
More than any of his "conscious" peers, Common has never given up on the idea that hip-hop in its most organic form, is a site where young black folks waged rhetorical warfare with each other. This point is made clear on the J-Dilla produced "Soul Power" which is the most traditional hip-hop track on the disc. Challenging the notion that fellow "gramscians" shouldn't take aim at each other Common rips into his more celebrated (or rather famous) peer Mos Def ("Nigga breathe, can tell by how you rap you don't believe/ain't hungry no more/so off me you feed"). After detailing his own "boulevard credentials" (that's for my "nigga" William Jelani Cobb) Common accuses Mos of fronting on his own ghetto-pass ("paint picture of the ghetto like JJ/You the Ray J of this rap world") -- as phony as say Ray J's transformation from Brandy's little brother to a Lil Kim chasing knuckle-head thug. More directly Com describes Mos as "See through, tryin' out act Don Cheadle" which is the line that specifically calls Mos out as Mos replaced Cheadle in the stage production of Suzi Lori-Park's Pulitzer-winning play Topdog/Underdog. The clear point of Common's attack seems to be that Mos Def has become complacent as a rap artist, resting on the laurels of BlackStar's debut and his solo joint Black on Both Sides, which was released nearly four years ago (perhaps more comfortable flossin' opposite Jeffrey Wright and Queen Latifah and cashing checks from Nike). In the second verse of "Soul Power", Common shouts down a more logical target, becoming one of many folks who are quickly tiring of Ja Rule ("I'd rather listen to silence, than you holla/Borrowed your persona, from the late that made 'Dear Mama'").
For the record, neither of them will be out-acting Don Cheadle any time soon--nobody does. Anyway, I just found that ironic...especially since I'm watching Smoking Aces (supporting actor: Common) as I write this.

In all, Finding Forever, like every Common album, grows on you. It challenges you to see the artists’ intentions on each song, and once you’ve done that, it challenges you to figure out how it could have been done better. Aside from letting Lily Allen be a little more like Lily Allen, and aside from maybe toning up a couple of the meandering moments, I don’t see a lot of room for improvement here. If I have a complain, it’s that he could have aimed higher. But again, I’m an Electric Circus snob. I’ll get over that. Finding Forever is not my favorite Common album, but it’s still challenging and rewarding, and (at least until Talib Kweli’s Eardrum enters the equation next week), it’s easily the best hip hop album of 2007. That might say as much about the current state of hip hop as anything else, but...strong album in the end. Plus, bonus points for the use of an extended Nina Simone sample in "Misunderstood"'s the only faster way to my heart than a Curtis Mayfield sample. Well played.


Before Rilo Kiley and Talib Kweli make their alterations to this list next week, here’s where we stand with the Best Albums of 2007:

1. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
2. The White Stripes, Icky Thump
3. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
4. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Living with the Living
5. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
6. Pat McGee Band, These Days (The Virginia Sessions)
7. Common, Finding Forever
8. The Ike Reilly Assassination, We Belong to the Staggering Evening
9. Blue Scholars, The Long March EP
10. Brother Ali, The Undisputed Truth
11. Bright Eyes, Cassadega
12. The Polyphonic Spree, The Fragile Army
13. Queens of the Stone Age, Era Vulgaris
14. Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full
15. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times
16. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
17. Elk City, New Believers
18. Ozomatli, Don’t Mess with the Dragon
19. Dinosaur Jr., Beyond
20. Tinariwen, Aman Iman: Water Is Life

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