Has anybody seen AMC’s Hell on Wheels lately? It’s raw, well scripted, poignantly acted—basically The Soprano’s of Wild West Programming—and it stars Hip Hop veteran Common as a poor slave worker looking for redemption. The bottom line, folks: he’s undoubtedly good. That does not come as a surprise to any Common fan of the past two decades. The role is perfect for the rapper/poet, he has repeatedly professed this same persona in his lyrics, and sound on every album or collaboration he has put his name on.
This notion of redemption—which is so familiar to us all—holds true with his new release of The Dreamer/ The Believer… well at least for fifty percent of the album. Perhaps that is why the album title is divided in two, for “The Dreamer” aspect is the classic introspective Common, while “The Believer” portion seems to be a new, far reaching, and even at times out of character attempt at the contemporary Hip Hop scene. But this is not to say this is a contradicting album or even a bad album—it is more along the lines of well-constructed two-sided album.
For the classic Common, we are given tracks like “Blue Sky,” “Loving I Lost,” and “Gold” which are probably his best recordings since the late 90’s touchstone album Like Water for Chocolate. All three hold catchy hooks, afro-beat cool jams, and expel a feeling of ghetto street wisdom. Moreover, they are full of narratives of broken hearts and the human condition: storytelling is Common’s bread and butter.
In “Gold” he writes, “Ashtrays and cigarettes/last days, indigenous/people/These are adventures of young black millionaires / I am the voice of the meek and underprivileged.” What’s more to ask? It’s so familiar yet done in such a new affecting way. Lines like these are what I would consider to be (side-A) of the album, “The Believer.” Creating a whole album full of wisdom and truth like this would be nothing but gold (no pun intended) for Common fans… but he goes another direction.
In what I like to call “side-B” of the album, or “The Believer,” Common’s persona changes. He becomes a ruthless, arrogant, and driven exaggeration, yelling instead of telling his listeners this is who he is and this is what he expects. I must reiterate that this does not contradict the album, for he the title is divided into two, but it is evident that the Hip Hop demigod was trying to show a different side of him in the year 2012. With other emcees toting classy, egotistical voices like Kanye and Jay-Z, Common seems to choose the same path. Maybe this is what Hip Hop fans are looking for? Well, maybe that is true, but it’s not what Common fans seek in his music.
Tracks like “Sweet” and “Raw” are almost laughable. He’s demanding, misogynistic (no longer a lovesick sweetheart), materialistic, and plainly, just downright angry. In “Sweet” he writes, “How can I say this/fuck it I’m the greatest/I am the A-list for all these great debaters.” This might be true, he is great, but then he follows up lines like this with rhymes about Air Jordans and in the pre-chorus he calls out his muse nemesis a “sweet motha fucka, bitch ass motha fucka.” Why so serious, Common? You mad, bro?
Either way, the second aspect of the album is far from what was expected but that is only because we are used to jams like “Between You, Me, & Liberation.” If we take it as a new era of Common, it is quite good, for he can back up this new ego. He starred alongside Denzel in American Gangster, next to Morgan Freeman (God) in Wanted, and now Hell on Wheels. The dude has the credentials. Now all he has to do is start his own line of clothing and become the next Hennessey spokesman.
Notable Tracks: Lovin’ I Lost or Blue Sky