Thursday, November 17, 2011

Album Listening: Common goes raw on The Dreamer, The Believer

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2011 at 1:09 PM

Common started to unbutton his plaid shirt. So far he's only previewed one track from his ninth studio album at Jermaine Dupri's SouthSide Studios, yet the side of his head had already started glistening. “I'm about hip-hop,” he said, “and when I worked with No I.D., that was a reminder.”

In 2005 he lamented, “When we perform, it's just coffee shop chicks and white dudes.” In 2008, he enlisted the Neptunes and announced, “Broads say, 'Are you a philosopher?' / Yeah yeah, I'll philosophize on top of ya.” He still calls himself a socially conscious rapper at his convenience, most recently in the midst of a conservative media fit. (Michelle Obama invited him to a White House poetry and spoken word event. Sarah Palin's tweeted response: “Oh lovely, White House...”) Common's tried for years to redefine what hip-hop means to him, and in the months leading up to the Dec. 20 release of The Dreamer, The Believer, he's mainly offered one word: “raw.”

And that's how The Dreamer, The Believer sounded — at first. As his voice blared through the speakers, sounding as if he was paging from a two-way radio, Common lyrically navigated listeners in attendance — including Keri Hilson, Young Jeezy and Ne-Yo — through a party, from vibing with a girl (“She on the Bacardi / getting twisted like the lime”) to the outcome when another dude tries to interfere. His course of action? Smash a bottle on his head. The title of the track? Yup, “Raw.” He cut off the slightly ominous “Sweet” early, but not before he searched for anyone who'd meet his gaze and recited, “I'm hip-hop / but Obama is the politics."

Ultimately, however,The Dreamer, The Believer is a welcome revisitation to what Common does best. Common's reunited with childhood friend No I.D., and this one-producer, one-MC relationship is rather intimate. In “Lovin' I Lost,” Common's reminiscing to a Curtis Mayfield sample, which No I.D.'s reduced to a thick rue and sweetened with horns. Sustained piano chords sweeten Common's wooing in “Cloth” (“Things seem so simple / I know when to go hard and when to go gentle”), and they illuminate John Legend's soaring chorus in “The Believer.” The boom-bap beats, the chords, the sheer soul — all of this helps Common cater to both male and female listeners with ease. “There's a lot of soft niggas out there,” Common said after “Sweet.” Later he explained that “Cloth” is about meeting a woman and “calling your family over that shit." He's writing what he knows, as confirmed in his new memoir One Day It'll All Make Sense, in which he opens up about his harsh breakup with Erykah Badu several years ago.

As he's told Jon Stewart, Common's back to discussing “love ... social consciousness, community, God.” In “Celebration,” he's raising a glass because he's got his “best niggas around.” (One listener even called it “the barbecue song,” after Common explained that the track is meant to be played at family gatherings and New Year's Eve.) He's looking up to the sky, and he's invited just a few guests. Nas chimes in on "Ghetto Dreams," and Maya Angelou helps introduce The Dreamer, The Believer. “We are here and alive today because our ancestors dared to dream,” she says, before she describes how those ancestors worked in sweatshops and shivered in their rags.

“Ultimately it's there to motivate,” Common said, about the album and after Angelou's words. He's still sweating, though at this point, he's moved on from downing eight-ounce water bottles to sipping champagne. “That's what hip-hop always brought to my life.”

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