Common has long been on his own path, and has remained remarkably consistent in terms of quality output over the course of his 20+ year career; an accolade very few artists can brag about with confidence. Now, with Black America Again, his 11th studio album, the smoothest poet in hip hop has returned with what I feel will be ranked among his best works and definitely his most important. But before I get into that, I want to talk a little about how he has affected my exploration of hip hop and his importance to the genre and it's history.
As a kid I was drawn to rap mainly because "the artists talk fast," but also due to the fact that you didn't need much of a singing ability to join in, you just needed timing and a little linguistic dexterity. With that in mind I threw myself into the genre, understanding nothing of what they were saying, despite knowing every word. My love was based solely on feel, which to this day I still base my appreciations on. It wasn't until years later, my early teens, that I truly began to listen. It began with me appreciating the wordplay, not the words themselves; I loved the pass the mic technique groups and duos had, and tended to gravitate towards them: A Tribe Called Quest, Hieroglyphics, De la Soul, Beastie Boys, Outkast, etc. In fact, that was basically all the hip hop I listened too. I wasn't concerned with an album's weight or popularity, I was only concerned with flow, and groups had that flow. BUT this isn't my personal journey into hip hop so I'll just say, wordplay appreciation turned into word association, which turned into comprehension and interpretation, making me further appreciate the syncopation and...AND! And basically that brought me to Common.
My journey with Common started at an odd place, 2002's Electric Circus, an album that was almost universally acknowledged as a step back for the artist following Like Water For Chocolate. However, I wasn't aware of this, and put on Electric Circus with an open mind. It helped that I was still very committed to Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and Jill Scott's debut Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, two artists featured on the record. Even more important, with Questlove and the late J. Dilla touching almost every track, my appreciation was instantaneous. The smooth neo soul sound, along with Common's velvet delivery and poetic lyricism, two qualities that embody his style, hooked me; after that there was no looking back. While the album's criticisms were mainly rooted in its ambition, stating he stepped away from the vibe he held true to prior, I loved it, and still do. Looking back now I get it, it's not without it's missteps. But this was my introduction, Electric Circus WAS Common to me. Perspective is a funny thing. I still remember obsessing over Pharrell's beat on "I Got A Right Ta," and to this day, "I Am Music" is in my top five Common tracks; and ending the record with the opus that is "Heaven Somewhere"?? Yes yes ya'll.
Next came Be, which was much more focused, and presented Common in a very different light, which, after the lack of love for Electric Circus, you couldn't really blame him for wanting to move in a different direction. That direction was Kanye West (he produced all but two tracks) who was fresh off The College Dropout, and on fire. Kanye's old school samples brought in old school soul and fused with Common's style seamlessly. The duo proved successful and Kanye came back for another go around on the followup album, 2007's Finding Forever, which features what is probably his biggest single to date, "The People" (my two favorites are "The Game" and "So Far To Go," if you're curious). This two album stretch was probably my favorite from him, as it felt most natural, though I will say his comfort level and confidence during his two album run with longtime friend/ collaborator No I.D. was extremely high (2011's The Dreamer, The Believer // 2014's Nobody's Smiling). A comfort, I feel, that was due to him repressing the urge to expand, opting instead to go back to where he started, creating a more bare bones approach.
No matter how much I write, it will seem brief. His impact has been substantial for me and I'm sure many fans of the genre, and yet he remains largely unknown to those outside of fans specific to the genre. It's hard to spend over two decades in a profession that seems to change it's direction every few years, remaining relevant and innovative, yet sticking to the approach and characteristics that define you. How many artists can you name from the early 90's that are still working to push their art form? Not many. That's what makes Black America Again such an important piece in his discography, it doesn't feel at all like he's coming close to his end. This is just another chapter in his story, and while it's possibly his most important thus far, he still has a lot more to say.
Black America Again is a protest album above all else, a protest for respect, for equality, for life. It feels silly for me to be talking about it, coming from a completely different walk of life, and yet, I feel this album has a much more universal appear than some may believe. As with any album delving deep into this subject matter, yes, I believe the main goal is to inspire, a call to arms to push a movement forward that seems, due to the current state of things, to have stalled. And inspire it will, no doubt, as Common has always been on the conscious side of hip hop, promoting respect and love without faltering, no matter what. But what this album does to people whose lives may never intersect with the situations and conditions he talks about, who may THINK they know what's going on, it humbles, and educates, teaching empathy rather than just sympathy, and understanding where there may have been confusion.
With production from the legend Karriem Riggins, Common takes the chaos of the situation we're in today and compounds it with the problems of the past, and he bottles all of it into a focused cry for change, which is best represented in the album's title track, "Black America Again." Or on "Rain," where he talks with God, looking for affirmation that his pursuit of art is his intended purpose. And though the album carries a heavier emotional load, he still makes time for his trademark smoothness on what is probably my favorite track, "Red Wine." The heavy jazz presence that Riggins brings to the table adds to the timeless feel of the record, much like Kendrick Lamar's 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. Through complex orchestrations and emotional intensity, Common and Riggins match each other at every turn, bringing the end result to new heights.
Common has always provided a voice of reason and strength, preaching intelligence and awareness in an effort to defeat ignorance, not in an extreme way, but in a calm and collected way, as only he knows how. Even his fiery moments seem to give me a sense of calm, knowing he is steadfast and strong in his ability to lead, preaching unity and advancement in the face of detractors. The best part about Black America Again isn't the fact that it's so on point, it's that rather than making a product of the times, by acknowledging both past and present he creates something that transcends that. Common didn't turn on a switch and suddenly create a record preaching love and respect, he's been doing it his entire career. It just so happens that we need it now, more than ever. So in a sea of people searching for the right words and guidance, I know one man I have no problem giving my undivided attention to, and this album proves why you should do the same.