Album: Common, The Dreamer/The Believer (Warner Bros)
Three years on from Universal Mind Control, Common reverts back from that album's Neptunes-produced techno grooves to a more old-school hip-hop style, courtesy of his long-time friend (and Kanye West's mentor) No ID, with whom he last worked on 1997's One Day It'll All Make Sense.
It's an appropriate shift of style for an extended dose of positive hip-hop that Common believes "can really generate good spirit".
"The Dreamer" opens the album with Common at the Grammy Awards a few years ago, surveying his position in the game, and "gettin' Johnny Cash old white folks number now". It's swathed in heavy echo, as if a movie dream recollection, and segues via a passage of reversed guitar into Maya Angelou sermonising about the struggle. "We are here today," she reminds the hip-hop audience, "because our ancestors dared to dream". The dream theme continues in "Ghetto Dreams", where Nas and Common reflect on the meagre fantasies allowed the poor, in which - affirming Milan Kundera's analysis - sexual expression becomes an expression of freedom.
The album's other main strand, of religious belief, is most explicitly tackled at the other end of the album with John Legend in "The Believer" itself, where the hustling beat, heavenly choir and Legend's piano backdrop Common's rapid-fire rap about how, despite it being "hard to see lessons in a violent culture", he believes that "even through the unseen, I know that God watches us". It's a principle that supports him through tribulations of a personal nature: in "Cloth", one of several tracks focusing on his relationships with women, he uses the metaphor of torn fabric to express how splits can be mended, observing, "It's two seams that seem to hold us together - God is our tailor, and that's forever".
Elsewhere, Common offers further lessons in how to boast without disrespecting others, by making emancipation the subject, rather than aggrandisation. "I rhyme for the commoners, my name is synonymous," he claims in "Sweet", "I am to hip-hop what Obama is to politics". And where more brutish rappers might use the swirling symphonic-soul samples and marimba of "Gold" to proclaim their greed, he confirms his fellowship with the less well-off: "I am the smell of the weak and underprivileged/I want y'all to get a whiff of this". That he manages to express such ethical and religious principles without coming across like a sanctimonious buzz-killer is quite remarkable; indeed, in tracks like the singles "Blue Sky" and "Celebrate" - with No ID bizarrely making funky grooves from samples of ELO and Kenny Loggins - Common comes up with two of the more feelgood party anthems of recent years.
The final word, though, must go to the late Gil Scott-Heron, accorded the tribute of the album's closing track "Pops Belief". Over ruminative piano and synth noodlings, Gil reflects on his ancestry and the persistence of his religious beliefs, echoing Maya Angelou's earlier contribution with the claim that "We inherit the power to turn nightmares into dreams". It's a matter of inheritance as duty: as the poet Delmore Schwartz once put it, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
Download this: The Dreamer; Blue Sky; Celebrate; Gold; The Believer
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