The Dreamer, The Believer (released December 20, 2011)
We all know that I can be a bit harsh when artists encounter creative missteps, but I think every great rapper is allowed one faux pax. Jay-Z had The Dynasty: Roc la Familia. Nas had Nastradamus. Eminem had Encore. But all those artists rebounded from those debacles with some of the best work of their careers.
Common had Universal Mind Control. He rebounds with The Dreamer, The Believer. In a BIG way.
Gone are the lazy Neptune beats and the weird obsession with getting draws, odd characteristics that made Com's last set sound like a "conscious" Diddy album. Here, Common teams with No I.D. (easily the best hip-hop producer who isn't a mainstream name) to provide a simple message - hope.
Opening track "The Dreamer" casts Common as a "hopeless hip hop romantic," with Maya Angelou adding a touch of elegance by closing out things with an inspirational poem. "Gold" paints Com as the "voice of the meek and underprivileged" and on "Raw," he salutes the ladies, proclaiming himself a "Soldier of Love, like Sade."
The motivational "Blue Sky" is really the tell-tale track of the album - an ode to rising above the mundane in an attempt to reach the stars.
Yeah, on the surface it's very easy for "Blue Sky" and the other tracks above to come off as cornball fluff but it's Com's fierce, focused wordplay that transforms those songs from pandering to poignant.
Don't believe me? "So Sweet" will change your mind. Or, more likely, beat your mind into submission: "Yeah, I rep the fresh air for you asthmatic rap addicts/Pro black magic, this is semi-automatic/Rap we won’t jam in traffic/The game need direction, I’m here to map it." His intense raps sound like DMX woke up on the wrong side of the doghouse. "So Sweet" has gotten a lot of attention for targeting lightweight music and rappers who sing like "muthaf****** Frank Sinatra." But listen closely - it's not a call for the return of gangsta rap; it's a call for more focused, substantial music overall.
It's almost like Common is giving himself a wake-up call. Remember those insipid, oversexed songs from UMC? Thankfully, they're nowhere to be found. "Ghetto Dreams" has Common teaming with Nas to describe their dream woman, in pretty vivid detail. It's definitely not an appropriate bedtime story for the kiddies, but it's a much more focused look into what Nas.Com consider the perfect mate. "Windows" is another peek into the soul of the opposite sex, specifically Common's own daughter.
At just 12 tracks, The Dreamer, The Believer is such a tight collection that any holes you find are microscopic. The album slightly slows down on "Cloth" and "Celebrate" - they're good, just not as good as earlier songs. And I'm really starting to lose patience with John Legend. He screeches like a Minster of Music on Easter Sunday on "The Believer." Thankfully Common quickly pulls it back together when he steps behind the mic.
The last track, "Pops Belief" features the long-awaited return of Lonnie Lynn, Common's father, who often closes his son's albums with spoken word. He's been absent from the last few albums and his appearance is yet another symbol of Common's return to prominence.
At a time when so many people are dealing with personal and financial struggles and looking for hope, The Dreamer, The Believer comes at the perfect time. Even for an old hip hop curmudgeon like me, Common reminds us that hip hop's glory days aren't so far away.
My only wish is that this collection isn't overlooked in the holiday rush: it's one of the top releases of 2011. One can only hope, right?
Best tracks: "Blue Sky," "So Sweet," "Ghetto Dreams"
4.5 stars out of 5