In Defense of Common's Finding Forever
I don't even hate the cover
There's certainly plenty to dislike about Finding Forever. Virtually every song falls into one of three cliched conscious-rap subjects: the vague and nebulous for-the-people non-statement, insight-free world-gone-wrong cautionary tale, and the sickly and pandering loverman song. As plenty have already pointed out, Common's pop-culture references have somehow become so boring and mainstream that they distract: the first verse of "I Want You" is a really evocative meditation on the physical sensation of absence that comes with a breakup, but then he gets to that "it's kinda like The Breakup with Jen and Vince Vaughn" clanger and everything goes to hell immediately. There's no urgency in his delivery, and combined with all the pillowy Fender Rhodes noodling in the beats, the album fades right into the background. But here's the thing: I sort of like the way the album fades into the background. Speaking as someone who sort of hated Be, with all its tweeting flutes and somnambulant drums and flat righteousness, I had pretty much no expectations for Finding Forever. Resurrection might be a great album, but Common even sort of pisses me off there, if only because his intonation has this unbearable smugness, like everything he says is this divine jewel of knowledge that he's deigning to bestow upon us. But I like him on Finding Forever, and I like him because of the way he disappears into the music. The album is all surface, and I mean that as a compliment. In a weird way, Finding Forever reminds me of Young Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 because of the way both albums so single-mindedly pursue a certain aesthetic. Let's Get It went for overblown gothic melodrama just like Finding Forever goes for soothing soft-pop languor, and lyrics are almost irrelevant to the success of both. Let's Get It is a much better album than Finding Forever, just like Resurrection is, but I still like it way more than I expected to.
Kanye West has been saying in interviews for a while that his production for Finding Forever is an attempt to recreate J. Dilla's style the same way that A.I. was Steven Spielberg's attempt to make a Stanley Kubrick movie. Most of the negative reviews for Finding Forever correctly note that Kanye basically comes nowhere near meeting his goal. But that's sort of what's interesting about Finding Forever; in trying to find common-ground with a dead master, Kanye's figured out some new corners and eddies in his own sound. A.I., after all, turned out nothing like an actual Kubrick movie, but it wasn't that much like most Spielberg movies either. (Let's set aside for now the indisputable fact that A.I. fucking sucks.) Kanye might not be able to recreate Dilla's thick, heavy bass, but that doesn't end up making his work on this album any less weirdly powerful. Dilla took snatches of noise from old jazz and soul records and refashioned them into a sort of diffuse psychedelic boom-bap, layering them up in all sorts of disorienting ways. Kanye takes those same sounds and makes them sound like they're suspended in amber, hovering inert above drum-shuffles and airy synths. More often than not, the final effect is really full and pretty. I love the way the vocal samples and weird elevator-music keyboards cascade over muted drums on "The People." Lily Allen's voice floats beautifully through the staccato keyboards on "Drivin' Me Wild." I love the nakedly populist dentists'-office one-two punch of the instantly recognizable Nina Simone and Paul Simon samples on the last two songs. Dilla might've never done anything as obvious as those two samples, but both of those tracks are fluid and ethereal, and Kanye and Common do moving things with them mostly because they don't interfere much with their source-material. And "So Far to Go," the one actual Dilla beat on the album, is considerably more leaden and boring than any of Kanye's fake-Dilla tracks, even if the drums do kick harder.
Common might not be saying much on these songs, but his delivery is warmer, gentler, and more conversational than I've ever heard it. The writing might be lazy, but he finds the pocket of the beat and sinks right into it, something he didn't do enough on Be. The album's one glaring misstep, "Break My Heart," sort of illuminates what the rest of the album gets right. The album's other tracks have a full-bodied hum, but Kanye's beat for "Break My Heart" sounds thin and anemic, its irritating hook-sample awkwardly offsetting the barely-there drums. That leave Common nowhere to hide, forcing him to carry the track by himself, and he responds with a witless boy-meets-girl narrative that might be the worst writing I've ever heard from him. But that's just one song, and the lush sweetness of "Misunderstood" and "Forever Begins" sound all the more powerful once that one song blissfully ends. Finding Forever is also a beautifully constructed album. It fades out before it wears its welcome out, and it interrupts its reverie with the mannered but fired-up one-two punch of "Southside" and "The Game" at just the right time. On "Southside," the goofy exuberance of Kanye's verse makes a great foil for Common, and the track's flattened-out psyche-guitar riff cuts right through all the album's windchime contemplation. And "The Game" is just a really strong rap single, Common sounding more heated and motivated than he's been in a while without ever losing his control. Finding Forever won't make my year-end top-ten list, and it might not even make my next Quarterly Report, but it's still a breezy little treat and a welcome surprise, maybe because I wasn't expecting transcendence.
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Common's Finding Forever Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Common's Be Voice review: Sasha Frere-Jones on Common's Electric Circus Voice review: Robert Christgau on Common's Like Water for Chocolate
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