Hip-hop turns thirty-something this year, yet it still behaves like it’s twenty-two — catch — in the prime of its life. Transcending time, yesterday’s Grandmasters, Royalty, and Bigs begat today’s Lils, Youngs, and Boys. The rise of new money — it’s what you been waitin’ on, or so they’ll have you believe. But with so much stock in the UMG, it’s kinda hard not to party the responsibility away. And if youth is a state of mind and age ain’t nuthin’ unless you’re an aspiring reality-TV star, what hip-hop worry?
For veterans like Common, evidently plenty. Fifteen years since his major-label debut, the Chicago-born emcee still has so much trouble on his mind, so he has taken time out of his day to release Finding Forever. Though decidedly more upbeat (i.e., pop) in tone than any previous record, Common’s seventh album continues his critique of commercialism in hip-hop and mass culture. He describes the album as continuing “the quest to make forever music.” In other words, a record that begs repeated listening, as opposed to forcing repeating listens through marketed super-saturation.
Although this could be argued as the artist’s career-long modus operandi, Finding Forever is closer kin to the critical and commercial resurrection (ahem) of 2005’s Be. Rejoining his new No I.D., producer (and emcee for one track, “Southside”) Kanye West, Common again seeks a righteous mix of high art and pop concessions. On one hand, West can describe this production as a tribute to the late producer Jay Dee, with whom Common worked extensively on his most critically divisive works (2000’s Like Water for Chocolate and 2002’s Electric Circus). And on the other hand, Common can use celebrity couples like “Ryan and Reese” and “Jen and Brad” to illustrate romantic facade. However, much like the ironically titled Be, what is spoken about Finding Forever is often greater than what is.
Finding Forever, then, is Common’s snapshot of hip-hop’s awkward middle age — an album that is neither here nor there. It is filled with contradicting extremes that both the artist and culture have yet to come to terms with: old school (the dusty “The Game,” complete with a Primo scratch chorus) and neo-fill-in-the-blank (“Start the Show,” which shares synths, tempo, and fat drums reminiscent of Kanye’s 2001-spectacle Graduation); spiritual (“Forever Begins,” wherein Common summarizes the album’s supposed theme); and carnal (the string of “Go” reduxes, like “I Want You,” “So Far to Go” and “Break My Heart”); and white enough to pass (“Drivin’ Me Wild,” the cautionary tale duet with the milky-skinned pomo-chanteuse Lily Allen) and too black, too strong (“Misunderstood,” a Nina Simone-sampling dirge about the pressures surrounding double consciousness(http://www.duboislc.org/html/DoubleConsciousness.html). Though such stylistic breadth could be seen as versatile, here it is often broad and overreaching, and the affect feels unnerving and frustrating.
Which is precisely the point: After all, living through an awkward period is never a pleasurable experience. In this sense, the album’s standout is the neo-blues “Black Maybe,” wherein Common narrates two tales of up-and-coming hood stars who can’t outgrow their surroundings. Lyrically, the song recalls the familiar “can’t go back” ghetto-fab quandary. However, Common’s writing (“The black rose that grew in the jungle/ But humble stud still had rumble in his blood”) reminds long-time listeners why he graduated from “Chi Town’s Nas” to “one of Chi Town’s Gods.” Additionally, West’s work here most overtly recalls Jay Dee’s influence, with its stuttering Syreeta sample. Though still a trademark West production, with its sped-up vocal sample and smooth groove drums, the invocation of Jay Dee serves (perhaps Common, more than the listener) as a bitter reminder of the frequent mainstream criticism against the producer during his lifetime. More broadly speaking, the song captures Common’s problem: He’s old enough to know he doesn’t like what he sees today, but he, like everybody else, can’t go back. The only conclusion that can be drawn then is that Common, much like the current divide in hip-hop, is not sure of what he wants, but he knows that he wants “it.” Hell of a place to be in. Let’s just hope we’re not too jaded so we stick around to see what he finds.