It should not shock anyone familiar with record-label marketing tactics – that is, anyone who buys CDs – that the “best of” phrase in the album title Thisisme Then: The Best of Common is a misnomer. The reason is not a question of taste but completeness, and record contracts. Of the seven albums in Common’s discography, Thisisme Then draws from the earliest three, those released under the auspices of Relativity Records, now part of the Sony BMG family: Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992), Resurrection (1994) and One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997).
Added to the selection of roughly five songs from each album are one song from a 1997 movie soundtrack, Soul in the Hole, and a link to a webpage featuring four music videos. Those gifts are window dressing, meant to make the CD seem like more than just a repackaging of select tracks from three currently available CDs. Therein lies another industry rule. Record companies count on us to buy the same music (at least) twice.
A closer-to-accurate subtitle for the CD would be “The Best of Common Sense”, since the first two albums were released under that name, before he dropped the “Sense” to not get sued. And identity crisis is part of the framework for Thisisme Then. Or if not identity crisis, at least Common’s forming of his identity as an MC. The packaging and song selection play up the notion that the trajectory of his career is one of maturation, and that this growth to maturity can be observed via these 15 songs, arranged chronologically. “Common’s first three albums are truly a coming of age,” the back cover of Thisisme Then states. The CD portrays that growth as from a rambunctious, fun loving, cursing, ready-for-anything youngster, to a calm, introspective, spiritual, questioning wise man.
The former is represented by the five tracks from Can I Borrow a Dollar?, the latter by the rest of the CD, which takes his second and third albums and pulls out the most “thoughtful” tracks. So, for example, from Resurrection we get “I Used to Love H.E.R”, and “Book of Life”, but not a track like “Sum Shit I Wrote”, where he took a line about the facts of life and followed it with a comment on the size of Tootie’s breasts. From One Day It’ll All Make Sense we get, in a row, three introspective story-songs featuring female R&B singers on the hook, but not the tougher “Real Nigga Quotes”.
The tracks included are significant ones, in a couple cases absolute classics, in Common’s career and in the history of ‘90s hip-hop. And they’re possibly Common’s “best” from this period. But the way they’re arranged and framed by the album packaging, suggests one side of Common’s style and not others. Nowhere to be found, at least after the first LP’s tracks, is the Common who says dumb stuff because it makes for an attention-getting rhyme. For all the time he gives over to thoughtfulness, then and now, that rawer Common is still around in 2007, and was even more so in 1997. A “best of” that only pushes one side of Common’s music does a disservice to listeners, Common himself and even the record label.
Common didn’t stop caring about the pure art of rhyming once he started emphasizing the act of deep-thinking, and that’s still evident from Thisisme Then. Even given the one-sidedness of the song selection, this collection tells another story of Common. That of how a young hip-hop fan grew into a hip-hop artist. The five songs from Can I Borrow a Dollar? are steeped in a youthful love of the music. His rapping style is an overly energetic, slightly awkward blend of influences. Attempts at nimble tongue-twisting and straightforward proclamations continually give way to a hiccupping style of accentuation, clearly indebted to Das EFX or Busta Rhymes.
Thisisme Then’s liner notes mention Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Rakim and N.W.A. as influences on this era of Common’s music. To those you could add a host of others, among them Pete Rock & CL Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep and De La Soul. He sounds less reverent than animated, though he does sound hungry. In between each breathless lyric about wack MCs or chasing women is an unstated “I want to be a legend”. His rhymes themselves have urgency, but the music is mellow.
Another story of progression told within Thisisme Then is producer Ernest Wilson’s change from Immenslope to No I.D. Under one of those names he produced or co-produced 13 of the 15 songs here, and played a key role in the shaping of Common’s musical vision. He produced the bulk of these three Common albums, but none of the rest. Thisisme Then is his story as well.
1994’s Resurrection was a giant step forward from the album before it. Common settled upon one rhyming style; he found his own voice, almost literally. And his songs grew from sketches to something closer to anthems. Though Common’s more thoughtful lyrics are part of it as well, that anthemic quality is a key reason why Resurrection is considered a classic by students of hip-hop, and why Common’s stock started rising in a major way. An expression of worry for hip-hop’s future, framed as a love story, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is the defining track from that period, one that will be remembered and has been imitated numerous times in the years since.
“Book of Life” and “Resurrection” strongly stand as compact personal statements; “Thisisme” less so. But it takes the Resurrection album in its entirety to witness Common’s growth. Not just that he was starting to rap about self-understanding, but the way as an MC he was starting to understand the impact of song and album structure. The scant four tracks from Resurrection on Thisisme don’t fully convey how much more powerful an impression Common was making on the mic.
One Day It’ll All Make Sense expounded upon that self-critical, “who am I?” pondering, but gave it a stronger form, whether it be storytelling (“Retrospect for Life”) or journal entry (“G.O.D (Gaining One’s Definition”). Self-analysis became a full-time job for Common around this time, and the five tracks included here get that across. Yet they also give the false impression that Common had cast aside his boastful, hard-rhyming side, which he hadn’t.
That isn’t to suggest that these songs don’t give a clear indication of Common’s style at the time. They may not give a full picture of it, but they do show his increased confidence as an MC, a change as significant as the soul-baring subject matter. Another, also clearly seen in these five tracks, is the fuller, and more fully soul-based music created by Common, No I.D. and guests (Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, the Roots, Cee-Lo and more). Both the fuller sound and the collaborations are a preface to the Common albums that followed.
A clear creation of music-industry politics, the old record label sees the success Common had after he left them and wants a piece of it, that does music fans no service, Thisisme Then leaves off at the moment before Common’s two biggest statements. 2000 brought Like Water for Chocolate, an epic steeped in hip-hop history that stands as the sort of classic album statement that Common was reaching for, the type that the Common of 1992 was clearly banging in his headphones in between recording sessions.
That plateau reached, Common made an ambitious attempt to broaden hip-hop’s scope with 2002’s Electric Circus, regarded as a failure by many but destined to be considered differently by the hip-hop historians of the future. From that “failure” he’s settled into one particular groove for two more albums (Be and Finding Forever), Kanye West at his side, and become even more commercially successful for it.
Whether he sticks in that same middle ground forever or breaks from it again, it’s clear that Common’s story is nowhere near over. That’s one more reason Thisisme Then fails as an end-all, be-all definition. How do you archive and preserve a superstar who’s still on the move?