Barring another Electric Circus-type detour down the psychedelic-rap off-ramp, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of Common, at this stage in a rock-solid rap career, coming out with a bad record. What is there not to like about this guy? His smooth-to-the-point-of-absurdity flow is all but perfected, his gift for smacking around various social ills without sounding didactic is a given, his spirituality is one of the strongest arrows in his quiver, his selection of producers and beats — even not counting the Kanye card — results in an organic unity that’s damn near the Guru/Premier variety. Ladies love him, his style is of the sort that makes us guys think that when it comes down to it, we’re really not very good at anything. The man knocked out a handful of Gap ads a few months back and his reputation suffered nary a splotch.
Which is why it’s weird that Common, seven albums in, seems to still be fighting to shatter the ceiling into some upper echelon. He still seems in want of — and in search of — that universal, crossover acclaim that’s been granted to similarly gifted associates like Mr. West. And as good as Finding Forever is — and it’s very good — it’s hard to imagine it vaulting Common into superstar status. It’s the curse of being sly and thoughtful, and I’m pretty sure it’s happened to others before.
Whatever: Finding Forever is a winner, lean and mean and without a minute of wasted space. Common’s whip-smart flow has grown more wicked this time out. For my money, Common benefits from letting his inner Black Thought out, roaring and raging to break through his thoughtful hippie-man vibe: “She be on a treadmill like OK Go,” “a conscious nigga with mack like Steve Jobs,” “verses touch the youth like a Catholic priest.” If one didn’t know better, one would think Common hails from a time when hip-hop acclaim was predicated solely on one’s ability to kick such wicked rhymes.
He’s also from a time when MCs preferred to keep their compounds contaminant-free. This is a mostly “featuring”-free affair, if you don’t count the pervasive Kanyeness and one guest spot each by D’Angelo and Lily Allen (a rare bit of trendy blogspotting; her track “Drivin’ Me Wild” is a narrative smackdown, but Lily’s cameo, while typically sticky-sweet, is a little distracting).
Finding Forever is split evenly between Common’s soul-dripping R&B jams and a surprising volume of banging electric-hammer tracks, like “Southside”, a West-produced jam that comes with a jittery, neverending guitar riff. West is, of course, credited as executive producer here, and Kanye knows how to lay beats behind Common’s voice with something approaching a preternatural automaticness. He’s pulled back on the soul samples and Jon Brion-ed effects of his solo stuff to get back to hammering old basics, especially on the dirt-puddle groove of “The Game”. West throws some bones to his Contact List, too — cousin Devo Springsteen conjures up a eerie Nina Simone sample on the dark, looming “Misunderstood”, a sonic complement to one of Common’s most eloquent tales of a hell corner on the block.
Finding Forever is one of the least surprising records of the year. Precisely like all of Common’s previous stuff, it’s less a potent shot than a sipping liquor you should probably keep ordering all night. It’s smooth, it’s stylish and it’s thoughtful — “Love’s not a mystery, it’s everything,” Common (and Lily) croon in “Drivin’ Me Wild”. Superstardom may not be in Common’s cards. He may have to settle for being one of hip-hop’s most winning underdogs.