Common has been making hip hop for nearly two decades now, and even though he’s responsible for a handful of good-to-great albums, as well as one of the genre’s most notorious screeds, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” he lacks the lauded-veteran status he probably deserves. That’s partially due to the fact that two of Common’s most high profile albums were flops – 2002’s neo-soul opus Electric Circus and 2008’s club-inspired Universal Mind Control. Plus, the Chicagoan has recently gone from moonlighting thespian to full-fledged working actor, starring in the Queen Latifah rom-com Just Wright and the AMC Western series Hell on Wheels. Considering that Common has been a severe critic of hip hop nearly from the start and that lately he has seemed more interested in doing anything but make music (not only acting but starting a clothing line, advocating for PETA, writing a memoir) one sometimes gets the feeling that Common has never felt fully comfortable with hip hop, and that hip hop has never felt fully comfortable with Common.
Explain it as another curveball in an already surprising career or the sudden unearthing of a long-buried cache of creative gold, but Common’s new album The Dreamer, The Believer is the best thing he’s done in a while. Aided by richly textured production from No I.D. that seems both excitingly innovative and respectfully indebted to classic Premier-style boombap, Common unleashes a torrent of rhymes covering romance, religion, life in the hood and life at the top, and he doesn’t waste a single line. Gone are the unconvincingly debauched come-ons of Universal Mind Control, the celebrity in-jokes of Finding Forever. Common seems content to give hip-hop heads their ideal album, an album that is positive without being corny as well as free of trendy R&B filler and unnecessary guest stars (Nas has the lone guest verse), and his listeners will likely be more than content, grateful in fact, to have this album in their possession.
The Nas collaboration “Ghetto Dreams” was the first leak off The Dreamer, The Believer, and it serves as a fitting thesis statement and introduction to the album. Judging by the title and the song’s propulsive, soul-sampling beat, which would sound at home on Supreme Clientele, you might expect a hardboiled tale of criminality and scraping by. But Common and Nas use their verses to praise their women – and these aren’t the dead-eyed model girls of Kanye West’s visions, but females who could actually be real. “We got out our own handshake, her titties aren’t fake,” raps Common, and he later explains how she gets snappy when he forgets to close the kitchen cabinets. Nas takes his girl from the projects to a world of flashing lights and designer bags, but he really wants to be in the “crib raising kids, Labrador behind the white fence.” In bestowing epic drama on the details of domesticity, the song offers a remarkable thwarting of expectations.
As evidenced by “Ghetto Dreams” and some of its other songs, The Dreamer, The Believer has a unique perspective on women given its traditional aesthetics. Even though it has no “strictly-for-the-ladies” tracks, the album is as emotionally well-rounded and romantically conscious as Take Care. As a break-up song, “Lovin I Lost” serves as a boombap “Marvin’s Room,” as Common takes pictures off the wall and wonders about how having an absent father has affected his intimacy issues, all while an aching Curtis Mayfield sample sings along, “I loved and I lost.” “The Cloth” employs a bittersweet melody and an extended metaphor to illustrate a spiritual connection with a woman. It’s the sort of song that you can only fully comprehend after a few listens, or rather readings, a poem that requires unpacking.
But The Dreamer, The Believer is hardly just an opportunity for Common to go back in time and recreate his old “Common Sense” man-of-the-people persona. Common doesn’t apologize for who he has become, even if he describes his luxury lifestyle with depth and heart. Cut to another swelling, gorgeous No I.D. beat, “Gold” mixes Robin Leach opulence and religious prophecy, one of rap’s oldest and most potent oxymorons -- “These are adventures of young black millionaires / I am the voice of the meek and underprivileged /The smell of success, I want y'all to get a whiff of this” -- and Common admits with wariness via the song’s hook that he’s proud to have made into the world of money and power without losing his soul. “Raw (How You Like It)” recounts a night at a ritzy club; when someone accuses Com of being “Hollywood,” he responds by saying, “Nah, I’m Chicago,” and breaking a bottle over their head. Here and elsewhere Common finds that particularly hip-hop sweet spot of moneyed swagger, sexual aggression, and social conscience.
It’s kind of unnerving how easily Common can slip into the guise of the heroic, world-swallowing MC, when in the past he’s seemed so content to be bland. One suspects that he treats it like any other role, a character to master. And No I.D.’s production on The Dreamer, The Believer is nothing short of an auteur’s career statement. It’s hard to imagine any rapper worth his salt encountering these beats and not wanting to go ham. So Common could be simply rising to the occasion. However you want to explain its origins, The Dreamer, The Believer reestablishes Common’s place in the upper echelon of hip hop.