Common’s a rapper rap fans can’t help but root for. Over his career he’s consistently been one of the most introspective, insightful presences on a beat, whether he was deconstructing hip-hop’s transition into gangsterism, questioning his own homophobia or breaking down the relationships between white America and black icons like Afeni Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Like Water for Chocolate remains a touchstone release, both for Common’s self-examinations and the Soulquarians’ (?uestlove, J Dilla, James Poyser et al.) ability to create a rap album that was at times equal parts afrobeat, soul and something entirely unique to that collective. And yet the decade that followed that landmark release has made it harder to follow him, first as he experimented with Electric Circus and them simplified with Finding Forever and Universal Mind Control, a pair of albums that felt like side-notes to a career that was transitioning ever more towards Hollywood. GAP commercials and supporting roles in Hollywood blockbusters as elite assassins, gangsters and superstar basketball players—that sort of thing.
Sadly, that transition continues to color the work Common does here. So let’s get it out of the way that No I.D., Common’s original muse who laced classic LPs like Resurrection and One Day It’ll All Make Sense, is in rare form here. He’s spent the past three years designing huge tracks like Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” and it shows throughout Dreamer/Believer. “The Dreamer” carries a hypnotic groove that brings to mind a more reserved version of Killer Mike’s “Ready Set Go”, while tracks like “Gold” and “Lovin’ I Lost” are so melodically catchy it almost doesn’t matter what Common is saying. But he also brings it heavy with late ‘90s throwbacks like “Raw” and “Ghetto Dreams” that one wishes a late-‘90s Common could have gotten a hold of as well. It’s also really lovely the way James Fauntleroy—a cohort in Common and No I.D.‘s side project Cocaine 80’s—assists these tracks a number of times, providing R&B hooks that actually make one wonder what the track would sound like if he had control of the whole thing. That’s a pretty rare and commendable feat in hip-hop, where sung choruses often feel tacked on to the verses that make up the main course. With Dreamer/Believer things often feel in reverse, as I’m waiting for Common to finish off his serviceable verses so I can get another dose of those hooks.
But, yeah, Common. That’s probably not a good look for him, yeah? His career on the mic has been rife with contradictions so maybe it’s unfair to hold some of these things against them, but a dozen listens isn’t doing much for my gut feeling. He opens “Ghetto Dreams” claiming “I want a bitch that look good and cook good”, a comment that feels out of character for Common in both subject and predicate. Is that all “The Light” really boiled down to? Don’t get me wrong, “Ghetto Dreams” is an album highlight and was one of the summer’s more enjoyable surprises, but don’t think it’s not a warning of things to come. When Common returns to the hardcore template later with “Sweet” and “Raw”, he not only sounds awkward but he says awkward things. “Raw” should be a real trial for long-time Common fans to endure, as he tries out a perspective equal parts Drake and Kanye West. The song also ends with Common cracking a bottle over an anonymous hater’s head for competing with him over a woman, a moment that always leaves me completely disconnected from the album for a moment. “Sweet” is stranger in more direct ways because it’s filled with interludes of Common ranting and raving at no one in particular that they’re a “sweet ass motherfucker” and “you should know where I come from, you should know who I am nigga”. What?
The Dreamer/The Believer doesn’t carry on like that outside of the boom-bap-aspiring tracks, but as I said earlier it’s almost always No I.D. and James Fauntleroy who make this a show worth catching. “Gold” is one of the few times all three get on the same page, with No I.D. supplying both artists one of the many Late Registration-like pop gems on this album and both of them delivering swell. Opener “The Dreamer” is another track with some cringe-worthy lines like “tried to fuck the world she only let me finger” and “a hero, I’ll drop out like Hiroshima” just a line apart. And this is one of the better tracks for Common! I could pick out awkward bars for paragraphs, though, so this is probably the point where I should admit this much: all the ups and downs, cumulatively, make for a pretty entertaining album. It’s nothing you’re going to put in Common’s upper tier of classics, and no doubt it’s disappointing to hear him say many of the things he says here. But he and No I.D. did a really good job crafting a cohesive, pleasant sound that really rewards repeated listens in order to catch the intricacies of the beats and let Common’s corny uncle character endear itself to you. Even “Celebrate”, the one track with both a clumsy chorus and unattractive Common verses, is somehow more viscerally listenable than most things Common’s done Finding Forever onward. The Dreamer/The Believer ends with the usual poem/advice column from Common’s father, and sadly much like Common he feels a little lost within his niche, for the first time seeming more like a stranger pulled in from the street than a man with something we ought to hear.
Honestly, though, this is an album I both dislike and enjoy so much that it’s really hard for me to put my feelings about it in summation. If you loved Finding Forever you’ll likely love this, but if you vehemently disliked Universal Mind Control as I did you might love this by default as well. If production is your main draw to hip-hop, it’s got a lot to offer; if lyrics, perhaps it’s best to stay away. Oddly, the original Bad Boys film comes to mind as I try to wrap this up: like that movie, I spend most of this album confused, disoriented and annoyed, yet as it comes to an end I’m curiously eager to give it one more spin. Just one more.