Common's two most poorly-received albums, 2003's Electric Circus and 2009's Universal Mind Control both represented unexpected stylistic detours that stand out as the musical exceptions in the ponderous Chicago MC's catalog more so than the rule. And just as the rapper followed Electric Circus'neo-soul and rock experimentations with Be--a return to the introspective and earthy hip hop for which he's best-known, so to does Common's ninth album, The Dreamer/The Believer, reflect a return to his recognized sound after the Pharrell-produced insincere party rap of Universal Mind Control.
The Dreamer/The Believershares other similarities with Be; namely, Common's choice to work primarily with one producer and a fellow Chicagoan. On Be, Common enlisted Kanye West; but here, he taps his former collaborator No I.D., the man who crafted Common's 90s and early 2000s sound. The two Chi-town legends and brothers-in-arms have retained their powerful chemistry, Common sounds at home on much of the album, and No I.D. gives the rapper numerous soul-sampling backdrops to paint his pensive portraits over.
But that doesn't necessarily mean The Dreamer/The Believer reaches the heights of the duo's best work together; 2000s stellarLike Water For Chocolate.
The album opener, "The Dreamer," features a respectable-but-underwhelming appearance from legendary poet Maya Angelou and is the kind of introspective track Common seems to toss off without much effort--which would be remarkable if this time around it didn't actually sound tossed-off. But the following track, the fiery "Ghetto Dreams" benefits from a guest spot from legendary Queensbridge rhymer Nas. The former Nasty immediately shakes the album out of its early slumber, and Common sounds energized for the first time in years--even if Nas does steal the show.
The inspirational "Blue Sky" flips an odd sample of Electric Light Orchestra's 1973 hit "Mr. Blue Sky," and adds some inspired vocalizations from Makeba Riddick. The combative "Sweet" finds Common trying to channel his former "The B*tch In Yoo" self, the brash rhymer of the mid-90s who wasn't afraid to take on gangsta rap legend Ice Cube. Unfortunately, Common's put-downs and Southside boasts don't mesh well with his 2011 persona as rap nice-guy and thoughtful emcee. With chants of "Hip hop, that's what I do" and rhymes like "Yall forgot who I am/The 87 n***a that used to rah-rah in the jam," he tries hard to make you believe he's still as angry and aggressive as he ever was--but doesn't quite pull it off.
Relationships also feature prominently into many of the tracks, with "Lovin' I Lost" standing out--particularly for references to a relationship-gone-bad that will have many listeners thinking of the rapper's high-profile romance with tennis star Serena Williams. "Cloth" is a breezy, nostalgic track examining the ups-and-downs of love with a "La-la-la" chorus that seems to recall Kanye's "Hey Mama." The uplifting "Celebrate" also recalls Late Registration-era West, which only further emphasizes how influential No I.D. has been on Kanye's sound.
The Dreamer/The Believer is a solid album that won't do much to tarnish Common's reputation and will help fan's forget the misstep that was Universal Mind Control, but its a set that's much easier to respect than it is to love. Its best moments are among some of Common's most personal and powerful musical moments to date, but too often, the rap veteran--who's nearing 20 years in the game--sounds stuck on auto-pilot. And when he does shake things up a bit, he still seems uncertain and unconvincing--like a guy desperately trying to prove a point.
And at this point in his career, Common should be done having to prove anything.