Rising to the Top

Laps and Marco Polo in the Hip Hop Pool

Yet though you'd figure Common's got the themes, he's always been more about tone—a thoughtful race model working out his political and personal struggles in public, as on One Day It'll All Make Sense's mournfully postabortion "Retrospect for Life." And here the lyrical mood, while still reassuringly plain, approaches an Afrocentric poetry that could have been designed to mesh with the music or vice versa. There are exceptions—a frank piece of agitprop about exiled Black Panther Assata Shakur, and the outrageous sequence in which Common first bitch-slaps a ho and then plays MC Lyte and loses, darkly and comically undercutting his own professed respect for sisters. Without question it's an achievement to meld the mysticism and the ordinary, an honorable and beautiful continuation of Common's longtime project of bridging the life of the street and the life of the mind. Still, there's a little less to his rhymes than meets the ear. The two antigay asides are unworthy of his high consciousness. And I'm sorry the experience of fatherhood, a big deal for him back in 1997, has vanished from his metaphor bank.

Del, a few years younger than Common, has no kids he's telling us about. If anything, he's still a kid himself. He takes a teen delight in showing off extracultural vocabulary ("balderdash," "subterfuge," "talisman," "lummox"). He's very interested in how bad some people smell, details of which feature in the crack attack "Soopa Feen" and make up the entirety of the winningly immature "If You Must," with a refrain that goes: "Wash your ay-uss, wash your ay-uss, brush your teeth, or else you'll be funky." Beyond the common underground ploy of casting social content as sci-fi, he charges the competitive mettle of his putdowns and battle rhymes with a videogame feel, something nerdy and yah-yah. And on this record he shows as little interest in sex as any rapper I can think of. Yet at the same time, he's clearly an adult. In interviews he's copped to problems with dope and alcohol, and there's a song about the evils of each. I hope the comic edge of "Skull and Crossbones" doesn't discourage anyone from enlisting it in anti-DUI campaigns. It's the scariest musical warning against drunk driving extant.

Very dissimilar artists, and probably not knock-down geniuses either. But together Common and Del the Funky Homosapien demonstrate how deluded it is to claim a commitment to pop today while ignoring rap. I always put "hip hop community" in quotes. By now, hip hop is at least as fragmented as any other branch of pop—probably more so, because more is at stake—and I never expect its self-validated citizenry to care what an outsider like me thinks. But that won't stop me from observing that Common fans and Del fans would be better off sharing each other's wealth. And if you're an outsider like me, with no compelling social or ideological interest in whether the prize goes to callow smartasses or righteous teachers, for God's sake dig in.

Common plays S.O.B.'s April 14. Hiero Imperium, 8300 Golf Links Road, Oakland, CA 94605.

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