Common embodies paradox. In one instance he is beating his chest, parading in the guise of an early ’90s rap braggadocio and spitting misogyny. In another, he’s calm, spiritual, present, advising young people to follow their dreams and embrace love. In his music, the man spends some time reminiscing about being “tough” in the hood, but Maya Angelou proudly gushes that “this man could be my son” in an interview with The Mash at the Common Ground Foundation Gala 2011. There is certainly something novel about this duality, and many believe that paradox is the womb of creativity. Unfortunately, Common doesn’t quite live up to this suggestion in The Dreamer/The Believer.
The Dreamer/The Believer
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The Dreamer/The Believer
This is not to say that the album doesn’t have its moments. “Blue Sky” is pure visceral delight. The track begins in a subterranean mode with muffled voices singing barely audible lyrics, producing an anticipatory, hair-raising shiver. Quickly, the track soars into the heights its name suggests. The background singing clarifies and the bass thumps, making listeners feel like they could conquer the world. Common’s lyrics certainly add to this motivational effect, as he urges listeners to follow their dreams and be the best they can be. This is the spiritual Common at his best: combining hip hop and modern spirituality into a consciously uplifting work of art.
The song “Celebrate” is also a highlight. Perhaps Common is shamelessly aiming to chart-top and radio-drop with this track, but it comes out well nonetheless. The beat evokes a piano-laden pop suggestive of the lightness-of-being that Common feels in a gathering of friends and females. “Celebrate,” when sidled with “Blue Sky,” exemplifies the polarities of Common’s identity. The song leaves behind Common’s spiritual tendencies and embraces more of what listeners are used to in the popular rap sphere — the allure of material wealth and beautiful women.
Despite this richness of identity, personal reflection seems to be largely missing from the album. The only snippet of Common’s life listeners hear about is Common’s relationship with his daughter, and it is not substantial. How can Common expect the album to be compelling when the oppositional nature of his identity is not addressed? How did Common come to embrace love and spirituality despite growing up in an environment totally unsuitable to these kinds of feelings?
By not addressing these questions, the album feels more like a sermon than a rap work. It’s anti-personal, and there are countless, more efficient ways of delivering motivational messages about the importance of dreaming. The Maya Angelou poem alone, read in the opening track “The Dreamer,” would suffice for this purpose.
Unfortunately for Common, No I.D.’s production isn’t imaginative enough to gloss over the deficiencies in the lyrics. As shown in “Blue Sky” and “Celebrate,” the album can be viscerally satisfying. But that is the height of its aural achievement. Nuance is essentially absent, and the beats progress predictably, seeming only to exist as a background to Common’s voice.
What we are left with is an enjoyable album that doesn’t achieve its highest potential. Common feels like a faceless provider of aphorisms, embodying the vague archetypes of love-seeking soul and appetitive ego, exhibiting none of the wholeness and complexity of human personality.