Common is one ambitious cat -- and hip-hop sure as hell needs more of those. But on his previous album, 1997's One Day It'll All Make Sense, he was so driven to create a lyrical masterpiece that his music sometimes suffered by comparison. Praise be, then, for his latest, which finds him paying as much attention to the grooves as to the words.
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Not that Common has given up on making statements, verbal or otherwise: Try thinking of another rhyme-slinger who'd kick off his album with "Time Travelin'," a tribute to the late Nigerian Afro-pop pioneer Fela Kuti. (You can give up now.) Yet the song, which features a cameo by Fela's charismatic son Femi Kuti and a sinuous trumpet solo by Roy Hargrove, works as both a statement of purpose and a cool-as-can-be hip-hop/jazz hybrid. "Coldblooded," featuring Rahzel and Black Thought, of the Roots, a group heavily involved with the disc, is even better, thanks to a chicken-scratch P-Funk guitar sample and vinyl pops and crackles that add immeasurably to the tune's texture. The track, overseen by a production team that includes the Roots' ?uestlove and neo-soulster D'Angelo, is as carefully constructed as a building by I.M. Pei but no less funky for it.
This blend of precision and accessibility extends to Common's themes, which range from profiling a political prisoner in Cuba ("A Song for Assata") to poking fun at his own righteousness. Cases in point: "A Film Called "Pimp,'" in which Common portrays a hustler trying to raise the consciousness of a ho, voiced by MC Lyte, who has no interest in such jive, and the hilariously titled "Payback Is a Grandmother."
Throughout these last two tracks and the CD as a whole, Common displays a lightness of touch that previously seemed beyond him. Perhaps it's because his musical foundation is solid to the core, but he seems more confident and relaxed than ever before, and his positivity pays dividends. Like Water for Chocolate isn't the sort of rap that's designed to boom out of Jeeps, despite occasional throwdowns like "Dooinit." But this time around, Common has made hip-hop head music that doesn't neglect the booty.
Common is scheduled to perform on Friday, July 7, at the Celebrity Theatre, as part of the Spitkicker Tour with De La Soul, Biz Markie and others.