Common is in a very good mood, and for plenty of reasons. In recent years, the Chicago rapper has won two Grammys, embarked on a small but successful career in both acting and modeling and was even (controversially) invited to the White House. So it’s no surprise that his ninth studio album The Dreamer/The Believer is just as optimistic and uplifting as its title suggests.
Produced by long-time collaborator No ID (who also worked on Common’s first three albums), The Dreamer/The Believer‘s 51 minutes of fuzzed-out beats, soulful samples and reflective proselytizing contains two messages: its important to follow your dreams and its essential to have faith in God. It would make a nice soundtrack to a motivational speaker’s presentation to high school students. It’s not the kind of bangin’, blinged-out stuff that gets extensive radio airtime, but that’s never been Common’s style. No, The Dreamer/The Believer is the kind of album you can groove to slowly — a stellar effort by a veteran artist and one of hip-hop (if not popular music’s) best wordsmiths. After all, not everyone can convince Maya Angelou to drop a verse on their album.
That great American poet appears on the album’s opening track, “The Dreamer.” Common spends most of the song marveling at his good fortune in life — “it’s gold records, I’m on the silver screen,” he raps — and then hands the mic to Angelou, who (very poetically) reminds us of where this nation came from, serving up powerful images about African slaves standing “half naked on auction blocks,” eastern Europeans being “mis-named on Ellis Island,” and Asians “labor[ing] in sweat shops to build a better life.” And just like that, she turns Common’s humblebrags into an inspiring picture of possibility. “If you desire a bright tomorrow, you must build a brighter dream,” she says. Wow. Just typing those words makes me want to go join the Peace Corps.
But man is frustratingly imperfect and “The Dreamer’s” emotionally arousing proclamation is immediately counteracted by the following track, “Ghetto Dreams.” Angelou’s words are still fresh in our ears as Common demands that “I want a bitch that look good, cook good…butt-naked in the kitchen flipping pancakes.” So much for dignity and honor. (For her part, Angelou has recently said that she’s “surprised and disappointed” at the rapper’s language on the album, specifically his use of the N-word.)
Such juxtapositions happen several times. On “The Believer,” Common raps about his Christian faith as neo-soul singer John Legend delivers chorus so overwhelmingly sentimental that it could slide right into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But just a few songs earlier, Common was boasting “How can I say this? F—, I’m the greatest. I’m A-list.” That lyric comes from “Sweet,” a musical take-down of the younger, poppier, sensitive hip-hop acts that have cropped up in recent years (sorry, Drake). With a pounding rock beat that emphasizes the sarcastically cutesy “You’re so sweet” insult that’s repeated over Common’s snarled raps, it’s the hardest track on the album. There’s nothing uplifting about it at all, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
This dichotomy — truly inspirational messages set against dirty, raw beats, a pinch of egotism and a dash of sexism — is what makes The Dreamer/The Believer fascinating. Common conceives of bright dreams and big futures, but his life, like that of even the most strident believer, is still filled with materialism and impurity.
The album closes with a spoken word performance from Common’s father, Lonnie ‘Pops’ Lynn, who often raps or recites poetry at the end of his son’s records. Here, he is especially poignant. Pops begins by talking about religious beliefs over languid piano and synth-y samples. But he ends with this universal statement: “For those of us who come from less than enviable circumstances,” he says, “Dreams…come true…Live the life that you dream.” Maybe Common should try to speak that way too.
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