Saturday, May 15, 2010

Common Changing Lanes

Speaking of the odd turns former icons take, the idea of Common in Just Wright is an odd one. I’m not one to be categorically against artist’s experimentation—hell, if you want to do movies, do ‘em—but it seems unlikely that Common will ever be as good at making movies as he was at making music. Unfortunately, lately he hasn’t been as good at making music as he was making music, so perhaps the opportunity costs of his making movies aren’t so large.

But it’s worth remembering just how good he could be:

Probably the best introduction to a rap album that I can think of: those nice bass chords and then the somehow ultra-cool “YES,” the answer the question that you never really posed. And of course the verse is among the tightest that Common has delivered. But this song exhibits what Common is best at: a competent-to-great verse delivered over a retro beat. The retro beat was really important to the quality of the songs; somehow he could never quite manage to work the modern-synthy beats:

I don’t think the problem here is the beat—it’s maybe a little too garish, but not overbearingly so—but that Common never quite manages to sound right on the song. Maybe he was never up for loud, party singles. His best songs typically have a…I don’t want to say laid-back feeling, but a more reflective feeling:

These are something like the Platonic ideal of Common songs: he’s fairly emotional (particularly in Retrospect for Life), backed by a great sample/background singer (Lauryn Hill-covering-Stevie Wonder and throwing fastballs in Retrospect; that great 80s sample in The Light), with a fairly retro, plainspoken feeling. You might disagree with the politics (in Retrospect) but you can’t disagree with the intentions, or the idea that the song comes from a guy with a good heart. Probably that’s why his whole party album (backed by Universal Mind Control, see above) was destined to fail: his whole persona was based around the idea of his being a good guy, and earnest too. Anyway, incidentally, that whole persona is a reason he could conceivably become a pretty decent actor, but the odds would seem against it, if only because most people who succeed in one field rarely succeed at another. Anyway, those sort of retro songs—almost like a rap counterpoint to those older ballads about a person working his way through a problem (here’s the kind of song I think it resembles, emotionally speaking)—aren’t something you hear a lot of in rap, and something you’d like to hear more of in general. But probably it’s a bad idea to try and replicate the past; better to assume the feeling is lost forever for reproduction, only recovered by listening to the recordings.

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