Last week, I reviewed Common’s latest album The Dreamer/The Believer and mentioned a track called “Sweet”, which goes directly at the jugulars of “soft” rappers.  Of course, the blogosphere and myself made plenty of jokes alluding to the fact that Common didn’t have to do Drake like that, as the Louboutin seemed to fit in terms of the song’s sentiments.  Jokes became reality as Common himself confirmed that yes, Drake could take offense to the track as well as any other rappers he labels as soft.  Personally, I thought of a few rappers that could have taken offense to the song.  It seems that these days, there are too many MCs trying to be singers and too many singers trying to be MCs.  That isn’t to say that you can’t walk the line, but to say you’re the greatest or dopiest doing it when there are clearly greater acts in both categories is off-base and deserves calling out.  It takes an established MC who isn’t worried about the politics or the possibility of working with the more popular artists in the game.  

This happened.

Of course, the Drake stans’ first plan of action is to point out Common’s age (39), as if that has any bearing on anything.  If anything, the fact that Common, like The Roots, can still release a critically-acclaimed album after so long in the game without pandering to mainstream audiences by a bunch of mismatched guest appearances and keeping up with the trends, speaks to longevity and a hard-working MC’s ability to remain relevant by staying true to his core audience.  The problem with many of the 90’s-babies calling themselves hip-hop fans today is that they came along long after hip-hop had merged with pop.  They’re not used to the word-of-mouth classic LP.  Disposable and current wins the day and some of them don’t even realize that a lot of what they call “hot” today will not be something they can whip out five years from now and still have a connection to.   Damn shame when hip-hop gets to a point when the youth claim a rapper is no longer relevant solely based on age and don’t commend the ability to keep making solid music after all these years, whether it’s their taste or not.

Why you mad, though?

As Common admitted on Shade 45 with Sway (see interview below), I also must say that Drake is a talented individual: not the best singer and not the best rapper, in my opinion, but he has a good ear for the contemporary and knows how to create what will sell.  That being said, if we’re talking superlatives, in terms of “best” and “greatest” in this here rap game, longevity rules.  The fact is, through all the faux sensitivity and crooning, Drake will never have the depth to make a “Retrospect For Life” or if we want to go back to Electric Circus, a “Come Close”.  Drake has yet to achieve anything close to Like Water For Chocolate, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, or a Be and frankly I don’t see it in the cards.  The depth is not there.  I’m almost mad that Common even addressed the supposed beef, as an MC of Common’s caliber “calling out” Drake is puzzling, to say the least.  While the younger set will say he’s “hating” or trying to get attention, it’s quite clear that Common is well aware his fans are cut from a different cloth than Drake fans and that  “Sweet” is the result of certain things needing to be called out in the game and it takes an artist with some history in the game to see it and point it out eloquently…or to just kick in the door and let folks know what’s what.

Though I’m a fan of Common, let’s be honest…the problem that has plagued his career and consideration among top MCs is his inconsistency.  Though it’s unrealistic to expect an artist to keep doing the same things for twenty years, a problem can arise when you stray so far into outer space that you lose your core audience (Electric Circus, anyone?).  Common is, however, an MC who will always be welcomed back warmly.  The Dreamer/The Believer marks a triumphant return for the Chi-town giant.  After two relatively (in this writer’s opinion) forgettable albums (Finding Forever and Universal Mind Control), Com is back to the balance and inspiration found on the stellar Be.  

Production was placed entirely in the very capable hands of No I.D., giving the album a sense of cohesion you don’t hear too much nowadays when guys are splurging for one or two tracks from a “hot” producer and delegate the rest to various unknowns, which can make for too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the sauce.

 Common seemed to apply some of the formula used on Be to craft a well-rounded album with something for everybody.  While the conscious Common is of course present and accounted for, Com also brings some edge on certain joints that’s just hard enough without contradicting himself.  On “Sweet”, Com goes directly for soft rappers’ jugulars, which can be viewed as a shot at a few specific people if you decide to take it that way.  It could also be general commentary on the current state of mainstream hip-hop.  “Ghetto Dreams” boasts a Nas feature and dropped this past summer, which would have probably been a better time for this album to drop, judging by the summertime vibe I get from a lot of it.  “Raw (How You Like It)” is just dope rhymes and no pretense.

While the familiar boom-bap of hip-hop’s roots is there, Common is also known for making beautiful music with depth, such as classics like “Retrospect For Life” or “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)”.  That, to me, has always been the appeal of Common’s music: still being able to spit with edge when necessary but to also be able to show spirit and free thought and put positive energy into the music as well.  “The Believer” with John Legend serves up some Black pride for the masses, while “The Dreamer” is a work of art that features the legendary Maya Angelou finishing with some spoken word.  I could really go through every track pointing out the artistry, but I’ll just say the album is worth a listen of your own.  “Gold”, “Cloth”, “Lovin’ I Lost” and “Windows” all make for an album that can be played front to back without a thought to skipping.


I could even see the art in the one song I didn’t like, which was “Celebrate”.  My beef with it lies solely in its syrupy hook, which does an injustice to the soulful loop and keys reminiscent of a Naughty By Nature party joint, namely “Uptown Anthem”.  Regardless, between choruses, the block-party feel of the song is still well-accomplished.  Common’s father, Lonnie “Pops” Lynn appears on the final track “Pops’ Belief” to drop some jewels.  

In short, Common won.  So in addition to getting busy on the acting tip in AMC’s Hell On Wheels, Common may very well have dropped one of the top five albums of the year.  Common’s an MC that more up and coming MCs should study.  He’s not an artist who has had to pander to mainstream audiences and dumb his art down in order to receive recognition.  He has put the work in over time to perfect his craft to a point that the product can’t be ignored and, though there have been some minor missteps, few can real argue against the influence and relevance of Common in the rap game now and in the long term.  Respect due.

Video: “Sweet” x Common

You’ve got to prepare to listen to a Roots album.  Off top, you know this isn’t gonna be the kind of album you’re gonna mindlessly put on while you’re getting dressed for the club or keep in the background while you’re rolling joints with friends.  Nah, you’re going to have to invest some quality time and attention to The Roots’ work.  This didn’t change with Undun, the band’s latest offering, the 13th studio album since they hit the scene in the early 1990s.

Undun is a concept album designed to chronicle the life of a fictional character named Redford Stephens.  One must question the decision to create a concept album in 2011, the a la carte era of music, where most listeners will simply purchase the tracks that sound good to them on iTunes or listen to the tracks out of order on a streaming music service like Spotify or Grooveshark.  The likely response to this question would be to consider the fact that The Roots is aware that fans of the band are not “most listeners”.

Honestly, I wouldn’t know this album was a “concept” album if I hadn’t known before playing it.  Each track really stands on its own and there isn’t too much cohesion…but I mean that in a good way.  There are some beautiful instrumental tracks toward the end that almost sound like music you’d hear between segments on NPR.  Before that, you get The Roots as you know them.  The usual players like Dice Raw, Truck North and Greg Porn make appearances, as well as folks like Bilal Oliver, who blesses “The Otherside” with a familiar Baby Huey-esque wail that accentuates and doesn’t overbear.  Phonte spits with Black Thought and Dice over the plodding piano on “One Time”, a track that’s almost instantly likable.  The introspective “Make My” features Big K.R.I.T. first up on the mic, lending a southern flavor that blends seamlessly.  While many of the tracks stand on their own, the entire picture is drawn when one listens to it in order, even as the songs vary in texture and don’t immediately seem to go together until you get to the end.  I’ll admit to not “getting” the picture they’re trying to paint in its entirety, but this is the kind of multi-layered project I’ll enjoy breaking down on future listens.

Though the group has become more popular since becoming the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Roots has not done too much to distance itself from its core audience who were listening to them as far back as 1996’s Illadelph Halflife or even 1993’s Organix!  The Roots’ journey is one to be admired and reminisced upon.  Whereas MCs used to be underground for years at a time before they saw the light of mainstream appeal, many now take the quick road to stardom and unfortunately sacrifice the quality of the music in the process.  The Roots are a rare treasure, as they’ve flipped the usual script by not changing too much, but biding their time until people decided to give them a listen.  They’re a testament to hard work paying off by putting the time in to make your music the way you want to make it just long enough for people to say “what’s so great about The Roots”…and being pleased that they took the chance and hipped themselves to it.  Better late than never.