It’s far too frequent an occurrence in hip-hop for an artist to release a stellar debut and spend the rest of his career struggling to come close to that early peak. Mos Def has released two baffling records since Black on Both Sides, and his former partner in crime, Talib Kweli, while still cranking out a winner now and then, is too inconsistent for anyone to expect gold again. And then, of course, there’s Nas; maybe it’s unfair to single him out for having released what’s arguably one of the top five hip-hop albums of the ’90s with Illmatic, then steadily declining in quality from there on out. Hardly anybody tops Illmatic. This is where Common steps in—on one particularly notable line on his new album Finding Forever, Lonnie Lynn proclaims “they used to call me Chi-Town’s Nas.” It’s a funny thing, then, that Common, with the exception of the weird, psychedelic Electric Circus, has an impressive record of great albums under his belt, Finding Forever only continuing his winning streak.
Teaming up again with fellow Chicago producer/emcee Kanye West, Common picks up where Be left off, energized and inspired and carrying a milk crate full of fantastic songs with him. And though there’s an underlying sense of seriousness, perhaps just the inevitable consciousness and concerned cynicism that comes with any Common album, Common and `Ye sound like they’re having a hell of a time, which in turn makes it that much more fun of a listen. Early leak “The Game,” in particular, with scratches from veteran DJ Premier, finds three of hip-hop’s most formidable working in Voltron formation to crank out the album’s hardest bumping party jam. Even when Common sounds his most vicious, spitting “I never kiss the ass of the masses,” the static-laced bounce underneath makes for an irresistible confection.
In a track like “The People,” Common and Kanye make it sound easy, with laid-back ’70s grooves rolling underneath a trademark Com cultural state-of-the-union. He’s guilty of a little self-inflation, sure (“I’m about to ignite the people like Obama“), but with a good reason, as confessed: “sometimes we find peace in beats and breaks.” Common isn’t above a few dirty jabs, either, as he snarls “twelve monkeys onstage, it’s hard to tell who’s the gorilla/ you should have stayed a drug dealer” amidst the sublime interplay of harp and string samples on “Start the Show.” On “Southside,” West steps in to take over the ego stroking (“I’m back from the future, seen it with my own eyes/ and yep, I’m the future of the Chi“), but Common’s own pat on the back wins this one, as he’s “a conscious nigga with mac(k) like Steve Jobs.”
The most pleasant surprise on Finding Forever is Lily Allen’s contribution on “Driving Me Wild,” a delightful pop-rap song with an infectious chorus. Given that her appearance could have been on one of the lesser ass-chasing love jams later on in the record, this track provides some buoyant and unexpected sparkle. The smooth flowing “U, Black Maybe” has a cool, soulful quality, and the late J. Dilla produced “So Far To Go” is another crackling standout. Unfortunately “Break My Heart” and “Misunderstood” don’t quite live up to the rest of the album, sagging a bit in lackluster production and tawdry lyrics. They certainly don’t ruin the album, just create a bit of drag until the closing celebration in “Forever Begins.”
After more than 15 years performing and refining his craft, Common comes out on top yet again. It’s not a drastic change from Be, but song-for-song it’s an absolute joy. Hell, I’m even willing to let that crack about white folks and yoga slide.
Kanye West – The College Dropout
Common – Be
The Roots – Game Theory
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.