Monday, December 19
Better than: Holiday store displays involving snow globes and marionettes.
On “The Sixth Sense,” a DJ Premier banger and one of the greatest cuts to come out of the second golden age of hip hop, Common chided that “this industry will make you lose intensity.”
That was 11 years ago. In the ensuing years, few other conscious-minded MCs have embraced the entertainment industry with the vigor of Chicago’s long-standing ghetto poet laureate. He’s had lots of character roles in major Hollywood productions and a prominent starring role in a Queen Latifah romantic vehicle involving the weird courtship of a basketball player; he’s written a memoir; and he scored a recurring role as a freed slave on a critically acclaimed AMC series.
Yet despite his extra-curricular successes, Common’s passionate musical and poetic side remains intact. “The Sixth Sense” was ultimately a grimy yet cerebral love story about hip-hop and the fragile urban culture it has the power to uplift. Out celebrating the release of his ninth studio album, The Dreamer/The Believer, at the Highline Ballroom Monday night, Common was at his finest.
Common might be best known for his at times soft touch—his gentle soliloquies to the finer sex, his introspective bites of wisdom, his windowpane storytelling that doesn’t so much engorge the senses as much as it tingles and surprises the palate. But before he had to drop the Sense from Common Sense, the artist born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. embodied a rough-rider Southside style that was much more aggressive than his later work. On Dreamer/Believer, Common seems to have returned to those bleak, brag-filled Chicago roots. Teaming up with his old friend and Chicago hip-hop icon icon No I.D., the booming heaviness and in-your-face delivery sparsely demonstrated during Common’s more solemn periods have taken center stage. The two tracks that bookend the album and comprise the album title, “The Dreamer” featuring Dr. Maya Angelou and “The Believer” featuring John Legend, both take a spiritual, holistic approach; in between those outliers, though, lie some of the heaviest, most self-centered material Common has put out in ages.
Monday night, Common ran on stage practically already in a full sweat. As the plucky bass and sing-songy synth of the intro to “Be” rose up triumphantly, the stage became a springboard to heighten Common’s already soaring energy. With the assistance of two keyboardists and renowned jazz drummer Karriem Riggins, songs like the ominous funk banger “The People” and the ELO-sampling single “Blue Sky” added further levels of complexity and character. “Blue Sky,” which on record felt slightly too repetitive and a bit repressed after several listens on record, was smashing and unnerving live. At one point it descended into a ferocious dancehall breakdown, morphing its already stuttering beat into a taut gully groove.
Another number—”The Corner,” probably the grungiest cut from the stellar Kanye-produced Go—was slow-brewed with a consummate bravado from Common. It surely didn’t hurt his swagger knowing his friend and recent collaborator Nas was around. After the DJ dropped “NY State of Mind” beneath Common’s “Corner” lyrics, the sheepishly smiling Queens MC came out to perform his seminal dirge about sipping brandy in dark project stairwells and avoiding the pitfalls of the brutal city life. As a pair of rappers caught up in the eternal struggle of embracing abstract poetry or fierce realness, the two made a perfect pair. They followed with “Ghetto Dreams,” which blares with intelligent bluster.
Other than a scream-inspiring rendition of Common’s most bubbly love song “The Light,” the set list was exclusively made up of songs from his last four albums. That period saw Common get tighter, cleaner and more direct, although at times he veered into pandering and, sadly, funk-free music. But live, his thoughtfulness, passion, and even those mini-diatribes during song breaks that were as much small talk as uplifting nuggets of wisdom demonstrated a man concerned with addressing—and, more importantly, bettering—society’s ills. The older cut “Testify” and the new song “Love I Lost,” both performed with powder-keg anxiety and raw power, throw back pain-tinged romantic scenarios as parables to greater axioms about the sometimes troubling lengths to which unbridled infatuation can take us. As far as Common’s love-hate relationship with his industry and his craft goes, though, he’s been steadily moving toward better things.
Critical Bias: I was a bit worried by the bland Universal Mind Control, after which his turn in the schlocky assassin movie Smokin’ Aces didn’t seem so bad.
Overheard: Common listing the remaining good rappers in the game: “J Cole, Kanye, Jay Z, Lil Wayne…” Audience member: “Lil Wayne? Fuck that!” The crowd then dropped a sea of boos.
Random notebook dump: During a jaw-dropping four-minute freestyle, Common mentioned this particular writer and photographer twice. “And if you got your camera on, you better stay focused.” I dutifully obliged.
Love I Lost
Punch Drunk Love
NY State of Mind (w/ Nas)
Ghetto Dreams (w/ Nas)