Common was someone that even in the dark ages of the mid-Noughties had a reputation as a "conscious" rapper. I did listen to "Be" and "Electric Circus" before, but it didn't make much of an impression. I still haven't heard any of his Nineties material, but I thought I'd start with the new "The Dreamer, The Believer" as it is in the "news" at the moment. He and Drake have beef, you see?
If I was more fluent in the brain, I could crack on with talk of signifiers and how different sample choices back up or undercut the message the lyrics want to deliver. "Conscious" lyrics are accompanied by roots-y, R&B, "authentic" sounds. The more dystopic rappers like Public Enemy or Sole employ a full on cacophony of samples from all kinds of jazz, funk, rock and whatever ever helps build the wall of sound and fury. Gangsta's modern descendents sound like they've had a fuck of a lot of money spent on production and gloss, which seems far more important than how hard the sounds actually hit. This stands in contrast to the Golden Age when it was about stark, strong beats for strong, stark lyrics.
So "Sweet", the tune that offended Drake, who felt it was directed at him for singing on his tracks and generally being "gay", is packed with serious business. Old school drum breaks do my heart good, and the video (above) reaches for both menace and authentic Afrocentricity by filming exploitatively in the Nigerian ghetto. Common is a bit of a loverman himself, which is reflected in most of the rest of the album - so it seems a strange he should pick a fight on these grounds. I like the aggro, and it seems almost redundant to criticise the homophobia, even with dark insinuations of being popular in Europe. However, were I in a Jungian mood, and I usually am, I'd guess this was Common struggling with his own shadow, the fear of the inner lover-not-a-fighter.
Album kicks off with Maya Angelou to register its worthy credentials. "Ghetto Dreams" is about the "Apollonia" to his ghetto Prince and has a bit of Wu Tang feel with big fuzzy bass thumps, insistent R&B guitar loop and a bit of brass. Touch of the loverman business to the lyrics obviously, but still fierce. I've a near-irrational hatred of ELO's "Mr Blue Sky", so "Blue Sky" has a lot of ground to make up in my affections. That and "Celebrate" are probably meant to be uplifting, but that stuff doesn't really move me. Too much like the empty hip-pop rhetoric that's clogging up the charts at the moment. "Gold" has a conscious orchestral swoon and carefully picked guitar set with the staccato drum pattern from Methodman's "Release Yo Delf", which is a nice mix. And that mix is predominant - the only other roughneck number being "Raw", telling the tale of him cracking a bottle open on some would-be thug's head while out in the club, accompanied with silenced gunshots, police sirens and klaxons to signify he's a badman. Then he's back on a romantic feel with "Cloth" and "Windows" (which is about his daughter). Before it ends on "Pops Belief", the album book-ended by Afro-American elders and cheesy piano. Hmmm.
I don't know enough about Common or producer No ID to say whether this is rougher, more cerebral, more lushly produced than his previous albums - but there's enough of a mix of the three to keep it standing distinct from the backwash. I just wish it stirred me up.
And there endeth the penetrating insight. You're very welcome.
Rating: Dreaming out of Beef