With the release of his ninth album The Dreamer/The Believer, Chicago rapper Common returns to the music that made him a hip-hop legend. The beats range from street gritty to soulful thanks with masterful contributions by producer No I.D., another Chicago icon. Unlike the previous album Universal Mind Control (2008), which presented the artist as a once-conscious MC that had found the bright lights of Hollywood and decided to make club music, the wordplay on The Dreamer/The Believer is some of the most intricate ever uttered by Common — and that says a lot about the author of such songs as “Resurrection,” “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” and “The 6th Sense.”
The Dreamer/The Believer starts with one of the co-title tracks, “The Dreamer,” an instant classic featuring poet extraordinaire Maya Angelou. The one-two punch combo of the instrumentals mixed with layered verses deliver music that is quintessentially Common. The song is followed by the New York-style track “Ghetto Dreams” featuring a powerhouse collaboration between Common and his Queens predecessor, Nas. The track “Sweet” is a street-hardened verbal assault on sugary hip-hop music and all Common doubters, and with lyrics like “I rhyme for the commoners/ My name’s synonymous with prominence/ I’m to hip hop what Obama is to politics,” who could doubt Common’s genius?
Common reveals the puffy jacket and boots-wearing hustler he emerged as in the track “Raw (How You Like It),” but he’s as romantic as he was on Like Water for Chocolate (2000) with songs like “Lovin’ I Lost” and “Windows.” He offers the kind of party music listeners might’ve enjoyed on his last album with “Celebrate,” but delivers a soulfully cerebral conclusion with the second co-title track “The Believer” featuring John Legend. His lyrics here speak the ugly-beautiful truth: “Hard to see blessings in a violent culture/ Faced against weapons, sirens, holsters/ That ain’t the way that Langston Hughes wrote us.” The song ends with “even through the unseen, I know that God watches/ From one King’s dream, he was able to Barack us.”
Common writes for a specific place and time: present-day South-Side Chicago. Yet, by doing so, he unites communities throughout the United States and the globe by delivering one universal message: This is what it’s like where I come from, and maybe you come from a place like this, too. The care with which he portrays the South Side — whose streets are as embracing and unforgiving as any — demonstrates the love, the despair and the hope he feels for his neighborhood and its people. And the sentiment is not unique to the South Side; Common’s words transcend such barriers as race and geography. His lyrics enter the ear and plunge deep into the spiritual recesses of anybody living in an urban jungle wilderness bombarded by outsider dismissal. Through his music reverberates the yearnings of the people thriving in Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Logan Square, La Villita, Garfield Park and Austin.
On The Dreamer/The Believer, Common shows us that he is hip hop, or at least what hip hop should be. While he speaks “for the commoners,” the artist admits to the complexity of his verses when he writes, “Lyrical gymnast, you set the bar low/ This is the Kilimandjaro, like Twitter you can follow/ It may be hard to read like hieroglyphics.” But good music should be complex, especially hip hop. As an artist, Common and others like him strive to create what few can, to find the words undiscoverable for most, to depict realities that are indecipherable.
Common’s music serves as a nagging reminder of how far off-course hip-hop music has strayed. Music should entertain, but it should also inspire. Hip hop is rebel music: It’s the creation of underprivileged, disenfranchised Blacks and Latinos living in neglected parts of America’s cities. It’s a form of expression forged by communities in the struggle against urban decay and gentrification. The ideal track is a study in history, sociology, politics, religion, anthropology and philosophy; yet, unfortunately, the average song promotes greed, violence, hate, consumerism and a narcomatous culture.
Mainstream rap has been put on notice.