Live: Common Serves Up Fresh Nostalgia On The Dreamer/The Believer

Common Catch, NYC Monday, December 12

Better than: Waiting until 12/20/2011.

Common has always been a bit of a rap conundrum to me. There's no denying he's talented—"I Used to Love H.E.R." is arguably the greatest ode to/about/inspired by hip-hop of all time—but somewhere between the snoozer Finding Forever and the polarizing genre-bender Universal Mind Control, the rapper kind of lost me. He didn't fall off; he just seemed to sputter. Maybe it was the natural evolution of the backpack rapper growing up, or the aftereffects of gaining Tinseltown fame. Either way, there appeared to be a schism between "classic" and "nouveau" Common.

Last night, the rapper previewed his ninth studio album and reconciled those halves, appealing to O.G. sensibilities while staying fresh. Com and his DJ gave a throng of journalists, record label types and open-bar guzzlers a sneak peek of The Dreamer/The Believer—out December 20—and shuffled between between album cuts, acapella verses and fun, impromptu freestyles. Commentary was kept to a minimum, but the music spoke for itself.

The Dreamer/The Believer is undoubtedly one of the year's best rap albums. Common is in fighting form and the lush, soulfully rich production of No I.D. (who was also behind Common's Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Resurrection, and One Day It'll All Make Sense), is nothing short of stellar. Common fluidly floats through machismo ("Raw", "Blue Sky"), heartache ("Lovin' I Lost") and even razor-sharp jabs ("Sweet")—but he sounds better, hungrier than he has in years. "You know they be asking 'bout Common, where he at?/ What that man doing now?/ I'm doing what I do, hip-hop," he declares on "Sweet", which garnered many a vigorous head nod and holler from the crowd. "How can I say this, fuck it I'm the greatest/ I am the A-list for all these great debaters," he spews venomously. The sleeping giant has been awakened.

On "Ghetto Dreams," Common and Nas trade no-frills verses about down-ass chicks and sex over a gritty, scratched-up beat. It's gruff, unapologetic, and unexpected from these two. "I want a bitch that look good and cook good/ Cinderella fancy, but she still look hood/ Butt naked in the kitchen flipping pancakes/ Plus she tricking off the dough that her man makes," Common raps while Nas counters with the eyebrow-raiser, "Had explicit experiences I shouldn't mention/ For me, getting women turned from sport to addiction/ Powerful women playing the roles of submission/ Lawyers on leashes, congresswomen inflicting." Oh, to be a fly on those bedroom walls!

Uncredited crooner James Fauntleroy is another guest to watch. A part of No I.D.'s mysterious Cocaine 80s cadre, Fauntleroy, who jumped on the mic at one point last night, adds his rich timbre to tracks like "Gold" with gorgeous results. Common skipped over some of the album's slower cuts, including "Windows," a touching number about parenting and watching his daughter grow up. The track is Common at his best and although it didn't quite fit with Catch's nightclub setting, it's socially necessary and worth a serious listen upon release.

"We made a hip-hop album!" the rapper proclaimed more than once during the night, with emphasis on "hip-hop." Keenly self-aware, he's more than flipped perception with this effort. Old heads and neophytes simultaneously rejoice. The Dreamer/The Believer puts Common back on the proverbial hip-hop map; no matter whether he really ever left in the first place, this is where he belongs.

Critical bias: I really hated Universal Mind Control.

Overheard: "This whole album is about dreaming and going and getting it."—Common

Random notebook dump: Cocaine 80s' EP The Pursuit is worth a download, and it'll only cost you a Tweet.

Track list (as played by Common):
 Raw (How You Like It) Blue Sky Ghetto Dreams feat. Nas Lovin' I Lost Gold Sweet The Dreamer feat. Maya Angelou Celebrate The Believer feat. John Legend

Track list (complete album): The Dreamer feat. Maya Angelou Ghetto Dreams feat. Nas Blue Sky Sweet Gold Lovin' I Lost Raw (How You Like It) Cloth Celebrate Windows The Believer feat. John Legend Pops Belief

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