We’re entering an interesting era for hip-hop. A form of music that was once met with such hostility and dismissal from society has now thrived successfully for generations. Relatively young figures are suddenly starting to show their age, becoming icons of the genre, and we realize that there are middle-aged people who literally grew up listening to this music.
Over this span of time, for roughly the past two decades, Common has been putting out rap records; he has often been referred to as a “socially-conscious” rapper – one that never emphasized material wealth as much as some of his peers, and focused heavily on themes of spirituality without being expressly religious. But, since his second album, The Resurrection, he has never been as consistently focused as he should have been; his interests have been scattered between music, fashion, acting and writing, as he’s keen to brag about on his latest record, The Dreamer/ The Believer.
Though by no means his strongest effort, Dreamer/Believer is certainly a step back in the right direction after 2008’s baffling Universal Mind Control, which saw him deliberately abandoning pretty much everything that made people like him in the first place. (Maybe he was too invested in Terminator: Salvation at the time to give a shit.)
Ditching the mainstream-rap mindset prevalent on his last effort – clothes, bankrolls and ho’s got a lot of emphasis on Mind Control – Common has also wisely reconnected with No I.D., who produced some of his most well-regarded albums (and, most importantly, had almost nothing to do with Mind Control). No I.D. excels at making old-school samples sound fresh, and that’s precisely the effect his presence has on Dreamer/Believer.
Not every track is a hit, but there’s good stuff here. “Ghetto Dreams,” featuring a guest spot from Nas, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on either one of the MCs’ older records. They both sound hungry and attack the track in a manner that opens the album on a striking note. “Blue Sky” seems like a sure-fire failure on paper – a re-worked sample of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” is the backbone of the track – but No I.D. and Common pull it off well, making it sound far less obnoxious or ridiculous than expected. “Lovin’ I Lost” contains the sort of neo-soul, retro beat that Common and his producer were once known for working best with, and while it’s no “Used to Love H.E.R.,” it is accordingly one of the more memorable tracks here.
“Sweet” is packed with braggadocio without seeming too arrogant – the MC delivers some of his cleverest verses on the album, while acknowledging his decline right from the start: “You know they be asking ’bout Common, where he at? / What that man doing now?” He goes on to emphasize that he’s back to doing hip-hop and that he’s “the greatest” at it, which is a debatable assertion to be sure. But based on the strengths of The Dreamer/The Believer, it’s simply nice to hear a resurgent Common back on track, doing what he does best, even if he’s not the best.